The Bear and the Nightingale – Katherine Arden

About the book

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.

322 pages (hardcover)
Published on January 10, 2017
Published by Del Rey Books
Author’s webpage
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This book was sent by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Well, I’m playing the better-late-than-never game here. Apologies, but life gets in the way and I figure that a review SOMETIME is better than no review at all. This book was released in January of 2017, and it’s stuck with me all this time, so that should tell you enough about the quality of the work right there. I forget everything as a side-effect of all of my cancer treatments, and I didn’t forget this book.

At all.

I have a confession: I love books that are fairytale retellings. I love books that have that flowing, evocative way about them, where everything is so poetic and beautiful, despite the inevitable grimness of the plot. Now, if there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s that nothing much happens in Russian based literature, Russian literature, or Russian history that is overly happy. I mean, happy things do happen, but if you’re looking for something a bit gothic, go see what Russia has to offer.

So here we are, with The Bear and the Nightingale, which is a fairytale-esque book, with some absolutely stunning prose, set in grimdark Russia and, oh, my darlings, this book is everything I never knew I always wanted.

The attention to detail in this book is stunning, and I’m a huge sucker for detail. The prose is evocative and flowing, poetic. Arden uses words to paint a tapestry for her readers. If you want to read a book that is a good example of the old, “show, don’t tell” rule, you really need to pick this one up. She doesn’t just tell a story, she writes in such a way where half of my mind was thinking, “holy hell this is incredible writing” while the other half actually felt like I was in Russia, living out this story. I felt the cold of the winter. I felt the family dynamics. I felt the determination of Vasya. I lived in these Russian cities, these homes, and while I read this book, I genuinely cared about these people like they were my own.

That takes some serious skill, folks.

The Bear and the Nightingale was a story that weaves together some folklore, mythology, and Russian history. It’s a story about the tug-of-war between changing times, religious influences, loyalty, love and the like. Throughout all of this is a subtle note of magic and fantasy. It’s there, but it’s woven into the story Arden is telling so well that it just feels real to the world she’s created. It’s nothing in your face, and it’s not so subtle you’d overlook it. This book has magic in every page, to be frank with you, due to how ingeniously written this book is, but the magic in the plot is woven in there with cunning fingers and a mind that understand nuance.

The characters are equally well crafted, while some gleamed a bit brighter than others. Vasya, for example, was one of the strongest characters in the book, with the most well-rounded crafting. While all of the characters were well crafted, hers was the one that really pulled me in the most. She just about leapt off the page with her brilliance, and she was the one who really made me feel like I was living the story that was being told, rather than just reading about it.

The pacing is a little slow. Now this didn’t bother me in the least. This is a book meant to be savored, not devoured, however, if you aren’t a person who enjoys books that take their time, then the pacing here might frustrate you. In my opinion, slow worked better because it allowed the reader and the author to fully realize the book being told. It should be noted, however, for those who might be bothered by that sort of thing.

All in all, The Bear and the Nightingale was one of the strongest books I’ve read this year. A lot of books are good. This one is art.


5/5 stars


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