I absolutely loved The Bear and the Nightingale. Katherine Arden has crafted a beautiful tale of wildness, beauty, and fantasy. It’s the story of Vasilisa–called Vasya by those who love her–and her family’s trials and triumphs in a world that doesn’t always believe in the mystical. In the wilds of Russia, far from the civilized world of Moscow, Vasilisa and her siblings grow up believing in Morozko–the not-always-nice Frost–and other household and wilderness beings such as the domovoi and the rusalka. It chronicles the life of Vasilisa as she grows and discovers how to reconcile her old beliefs with new ones that make their way to her household.
The Bear and the Nightingale opens with a Russian folktale, that of Morozko and the maiden. It sets up the story quite well, as there are parallels to this folktale throughout The Bear and the Nightingale. While I would say that is the main folktale that is threaded throughout the book, Arden has included more of the mythology and stories of the region to create a rich cultural setting in addition to a rich physical setting. And it wasn’t mentioned just to have “culture.” The beliefs of the North–which is, according to those who live in the cities, obsolete and incorrect–are consistently in the narrative. As Vasilisa grows, Arden introduces more of the mythology as she learns about it through exploring her world. It was a natural way of storytelling and of growing the world contained in the book.
Vasilisa is characterized as a wild child. As a daughter, it’s expected of her to marry. Those who love her expect that this wildling will eventually grow calmer. She never does. I was very happy that Vasya was the main protagonist in The Bear and the Nightingale. She sees the world differently than the others do, which is often why there’s a lot of conflict between Vasya and the people around her, especially when the new stepmother comes from Moscow.
With the introduction of the stepmother comes one of the main conflicts of the novel. While there are other, minor conflicts such as growing up and wanting to be your own person while also respecting the wishes of your parents, this one is the focus. And it was great. It allowed Arden to take a look at the conflict of the old versus the new, in particular the beliefs in the old Gods and spirits against the new God. At first, it’s little things. Then as it escalates into a larger conflict, Vasya realizes that forgetting the old Gods and spirits may be more harmful than anyone realizes.
I think that there’s a lot of conflict between Vasya and her stepmother not only because of the contrasting beliefs, but also because they’re so similar to each other. They act as foils to each other, but they’re also similar in their stubbornness. It causes them to clash to the point where neither particularly cares about how it could potentially harm the other. Sometimes you dislike someone because you can see things that you don’t like about yourself in them. That was slightly the case with Vasya and her stepmother.
Eventually, the conflict between the two religions escalates to a point where Vasya is one of the only ones who believes in the importance of the old. Her efforts to save her household and that of the people under her father’s care makes her come into her own power, and that makes others feel threatened. She’s a powerful female in a world where men traditionally have the power. She’s also a part of the old world, as was her mother before her. With her mother gone, Vasya is the only one left to uphold this. While the majority of the book is in Vasya’s point of view, Arden also switches points of views to expand the story. Some of these points of view are of male ones. It really works well for this story. We’re not taken away from Vasya for too long, and the different points of view highlight other aspects of the world and informs readers more of the world and how it works, without giving unnecessary information.
I’ve only talked about two characters, but that doesn’t mean that the others aren’t equally as fascinating and developed. While some have smaller roles in the story, I felt that all characters were equally rounded. I didn’t feel that there were any that existed just to exist. I particularly loved Father Konstantin’s story arc and the temptation that he was going through. I also really liked her brothers–while the focus was on two of them, I could sense the love that the others had for Vasya and their family. I loved that they were included because they challenged Vasya. I would definitely read another story that focuses on these characters.
Ultimately, what won me over were the various well-written elements of The Bear and the Nightingale, namely the characters, the physical setting of the world, and the cultural setting of the world. Arden has such a talent at crafting something deep and immersive. Mere chapters in I realized just how much research had gone into creating this world and by the time I finished the novel I was deeply impressed with the care that she had taken. Not only is her writing beautiful and engaging, but it gave me a true sense of Russia in a time before–when being a member of the ruling class is precarious and some of the people are transitioning from the old Gods to the new God. The only knowledge I have is through self-learning and is limited, but this felt real. The information–such as how what I would characterize as pet-names–was released slowly and I learned by reading. I felt a little lost at the beginning but consistency helped me find my way.
The Bear and the Nightingale is a historical fantasy novel, and I loved it. I really think it’s going to do well. Not only does it have a heroine who does her own thing, but it has a fantastic story with a great setting. I think it’s clear how much I loved it because of the details on an unfamiliar culture and setting. It’s a great start to a new book year, even though I technically read it in 2016! The details make this story and I’m very thankful that I got to read it early and gush about it in a review. I’m looking forward to what Katherine Arden comes up with next. If it’s anything like The Bear and the Nightingale, I’m sure that I’ll love it.
5 very well-deserved stars.
The Bear and the Nightingale will be published on January 10th, 2017. I received a copy from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.