Review – The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden

From 17th century Essex witches to witches in the frozen north of Russia. I’m 100% sure I like where this trajectory appears to be going.

Goodreads Summary:

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

Ahhh this book was so good. There is something about shifting from historical fiction to fantasy that just feels like such a breath of fresh air for me. I hate to stagnate in one genre (I end up mixing up worlds as you can read about in this post) but getting to change it up every now and then is amazing.

That’s probably what I liked most about The Bear and the Nightingale. While it had all the elements of storytelling that I love: fairytale, strong female protagonists, gorgeous prose, and a host of interesting side characters, it had the added bonus of having a setting that was, maybe not new, but not so overdone as most fantasy. By choosing to place her forest in Russia as opposed to in Britain (or ‘definitely a fantasy setting and not Britain but really it totally is’) Arden opens the reader up to a whole host of new experiences. While winter in most fantasy books is just kinda cold, Russian winter is actually very deadly and Arden’s prose makes you shiver, even though it’s been the hottest day of the year outside.

Add to this my thorough enjoyment of the elements of Russian folklore and fable. Any mention of Baba Yaga and I know that this author has thought about the underlying stories from which they take reference. Baba Yaga doesn’t feature as a character in this book (though if you’re a fan I can recommend The Woodcutter or Uprooted both of which mention or feature her in some way) but the stories which form the backdrop of the world in which our main character Vasya inhabits have something which has not yet been done to death in YA fiction.

Speaking of Vasya, how does our main character pan out? Well she’s the very model of…a Russian adolescent witch (Gilbert and Sullivan may have missed a trick here). But in all seriousness, the character of Vasya is without a doubt created with impeccable skill. Much like Lady Trent in A Natural History of Dragons she manages to be inspiring but not insipid and without being entirely period inappropriate. She’s the kind of protagonist you want to befriend, which I often find to be the best kind.

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I also thoroughly enjoyed the story, I thought the plot was entertaining and not entirely predictable as so many fairy tales are. What I loved most about the story was how it had so many hallmarks of classic fairytales but wasn’t marking them up with huge billboards. You just sort of realise as the story goes on that you’re reading something entirely new and simultaneously timeless. There are themes of family, of folklore, fear and destiny all of them handled with a talented pen (though, more likely, keyboard.)

If I had to make one eensy weensy criticism, it would be that I don’t think that the book has been quite segmented properly. It has chapters, and little markers in between chapters and yet, just occasionally, you find yourself starting one paragraph about one character and ending it with a story about someone entirely different. Perhaps I was a little sun-addled by this point and it may be that for someone else this wouldn’t be a problem at all. I would just mention that this isn’t a book you can just plod through without really paying attention. The action moves quite speedily and you have to be on your toes.

All in all? I adored this book and will happily read it again when I have time. If you like a fairytale that’s not tired or overdone, you’ll like The Bear and the Nightingale.

My rating: 5/5 stars

Read this? Loved it? Hated it? Let me know on twitter (@judithcmoore) or below in the comments. Can’t wait to hear from you!

J

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