The Bear and the Nightingale

- Katherine Arden

Goodreads Book Blurb:

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.

Series / Genres:

My Review:

absolute favourite:
I absolutely loved this retelling of a Russian fairy tale on so many levels. It felt nostalgic and brand new at the same time. The imagery was so realistic I felt cold through every Russian winter despite the 40-degree Australian summer I’m currently experiencing.

Not being Russian, I have no idea what fairy tale this is based on but I love it. It has all the classic elements you need; death, demons, spirits, talking animals, and a misunderstood heroine.
And I loved how the priest and his belief in God were made out to be villainous and a true conduit for evil. Although, if I’m being fair, I suppose the priest was never a truly religious man. He was much more focused on pride and his ‘calling’.
I did enjoy the little sprinkling of atheist charm and Slavic religious traditions to tie everything up in a nice bow. It was a nice variation to the deeply Christian fairy tales I am more familiar with.

There were also some minor horror elements here. I don’t do well with horror usually, but by the time they started to creep into the story, I was already invested and didn’t really have a choice.
The walking dead and vampiric elements were bad enough. The weeping grandmother figure outside the cabin in the middle of the night, days after she had been buried in the graveyard, was truly terrifying for me. Especially with only a very weak domovoi standing guard.
Katherine Arden is an artist with her words. Her storytelling is captivating and I don’t know how she does it, but the way she describes characters, you almost get a feel for them before you actually really know them. I found myself looking back at the first introduction of many of the characters and trying to figure out how I already had a sense of how they would turn out, without any explicit details being given. I think it shows a true mastery of world-building and depth of character that everything in this truly fantastical story feels grounded and realistic. As the fantasy fairy tale becomes more elaborate and evolves, it doesn’t feel far fetched or unlikely. The world around them has been so well developed and feels so real, it only seems natural that these crazy supernatural things are happening!

“All my life,” she said, “I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me."

Not to get all feminist for a minute but seriously, if people would, for once, stop blaming what they do not understand on witchcraft and actually listen to the one person who seems to have a handle on what is actually going on, well then I guess there wouldn’t be stories like this out in the world. I swear, if we just listened to people equally without taking their gender, or any other insignificant factors, into consideration, the world would be a very different place.

Okay, this is only a small fragment of the overall plot and I shouldn’t be hung up on it, but it’s honestly been a thorn in my side for days now. If I was a boy who bred horses and had travelled through the wilderness to meet my betrothed …
… and she not only charmed my temperamental steed but jumped on his back and saved her young family member (the exact relationship between them here is escaping me at the moment, sorry!) from certain death, I sure as hell wouldn’t have called off the wedding and run away! What. An. Idiot. Your entire livelihood in this harsh world is breeding, raising, and training horses. And you’re about to marry someone who seems to be even better at this than you are. But sure, of course, your manly pride comes first. You couldn’t possibly be expected to marry someone capable of riding your horse better than you.
And I want to be clear, this is a comment on the representation of women in history, literature, and media. This is absolutely not directed at the author’s writing or point of view as she could not have possibly written a believable story based in this time period with an alternate end to that particular scenario.

I have absolutely no idea how this book was turned into a series. I’m a little scared to keep reading, not just because of the horror I’m sure to experience, but because I don’t know how anything could live up to this first book. And where is there left to go in the story?! I guess I’m about to find out…

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[…] every minute. While it was sad to leave Lesnaya Zemlya, what it revealed to me was just how good The Bear and the Nightingale truly was. It showed that it had been just backstory and buildup for the things to come. […]

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