The Bear and the Nightingale

The Bear and the NightingaleThe Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Genres: Fantasy, Historical
Published by Del Ray on January 10, 2017
Pages: 336

 

Publisher’s Summary:

A young woman’s family is threatened by forces both real and fantastical in this debut novel inspired by Russian fairy tales.

In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, a stranger with piercing blue eyes presents a new father with a gift – a precious jewel on a delicate chain, intended for his young daughter. Uncertain of its meaning, Pytor hides the gift away and Vasya grows up a wild, willful girl, to the chagrin of her family. But when mysterious forces threaten the happiness of their village, Vasya discovers that, armed only with the necklace, she may be the only one who can keep the darkness at bay.

Fantasy fiction is the genre I consider my first love when it comes to reading. I’ve especially always had a soft spot for books that have both historical and fantastical elements. If it’s a fantasy based on a fairytale, it’s a no-brainer. The Bear and the Nightingale definitely ticks all of those boxes. Though the story told here has some familiar elements, the author weaves an entertaining, compelling tale, using vivid historical descriptions and genuine relationships to do so.

The story is set at a real point in history – in a medieval Russia when the Rus lived under a various princes, who owed their own allegiance to Mongol overlords. The brutal, icy winters and devastating hunger come to life, as does the massive undertaking that was traveling to the bustling yet growing Moscow. The overall precarious nature of life, particularly for those who are old, young, weak or otherwise disenfranchised, is very evident. The daily life of those living in the village, from the harshness of winter to the lush beauty of spring, is described so beautifully. These details provide a nice contrast to the fantasy elements of the story. It’s told as a Russian fairytale, but set in reality, and the two completely work with and play off one another.

Though the story told here has some familiar elements, the author weaves an entertaining, compelling tale, using vivid historical descriptions and genuine relationships to do so.

Vasya is a character that readers are sure to find empathetic. Though her very nature is contrary, she never comes across as bratty or unobservant. The story revolves around her, however, there is a myriad of characters that help shape the story. While some of the characters feel a bit like stock characters, for the most part, they go beyond the stereotype and evoke empathy in the reader. There is the typical stepmother character, the older, protective brother, the brother intent on a holy life and the brother too busy to notice his younger sister. Sure, I’ve met these characters before, but Arden gives them a new inventiveness here. I didn’t mind getting to know these characters, and in fact, ending up liking some more than the ones I initially liked at the story’s beginning. Some characters started out as empathetic, but later, they become more villainous. These turnarounds, while not entirely unexpected, are a more heart-wrenching part of the story, but also one of the more complex pieces of it.

When one of the key players ended up being a priest, Konstantin, bent on cleansing this backward village of its pagan ways, I admit, I did hold back an eye-role of two. I’ve had my fill of stories with the evil/corrupt priest character so I was eager to see how this would play out. Though I would have appreciated a bit more back ground on his motivations, I did like how his character showed the dangers of using fear instead of true faith to inspire others, how fear is not a motivator for faith, but in truth, a hindrance, and even a danger when the conditions are right. I think I just appreciated overall the ambiguous role of villain in the human characters, particularly the priest, step-mother and even the loving yet distant father. While I wanted to dislike a few of them wholly, I never really could, because the author still managed to evoke a bit of sympathy in me with their thoughts and actions.

While some of the characters feel a bit like stock characters, for the most part, they go beyond the stereotype and evoke empathy in the reader.

There are some interesting things done with the fantasy elements – she keeps the original names (spelling changed a bit for ease of reading) of the mythical beings, which adds a lot of authenticity to the story. I could have done without the undead, vampire-like elements that were included, however, for the most part, the details are mild. I liked the addition of the Domovoi, the household spirits, as well as Morozko, an embodiment of winter itself, a more intricate Father Frost-type character, benevolent or cruel as he wishes. I am not familiar at all with Slavic or Russian folklore, but I feel that the content is presented in a fresh way here. She takes the dual nature of Morozko and creates for him a brother that attempts to wreak havoc throughout the story, the Bear, Medved.

To touch again on the language of the story – the inclusion of Russian words enhances the telling and is thoughtfully done. Peek just past the ending, and there is a handy glossary of terms, which I would flip to if I ever felt confused – but honestly, that was only once or twice. She also explains her decisions regarding spelling changes and the like in the Author’s Note, so do take a look at that as well. You definitely don’t need to know anything about the Russian language, though perhaps it is helpful to know that often they use different names for the same person, depending on who is speaking and how formally they are doing so.

I liked the addition of the Domovoi, the household spirits, as well as Morozko, an embodiment of winter itself, a more intricate Father Frost-type character, benevolent or cruel as he wishes.

Overall, The Bear and the Nightingale is a lovely, lyrically told story. I spied a bit of set-up for a coming story (stories? Even better!), so I’m really hoping that is the case. I would love to see what becomes of Vasya, as well as her brothers (my favorite of them, anyway). Readers of fairytale retellings set within a realistic time in history are sure to enjoy this story. The evocative imagery and Vasya’s indomitable spirit kept me reading eagerly until the end. It’s the perfect book to curl up and read on a cold night, snug under a blanket with a cup of something hot in hand.

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