The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Rating 9.5/10
It is truly a testament to Ms. Ardenís skill in her craft that she can create such a wonderful reading experience

A Recommended Book of the Month

So many fantasy books these days follow the same formulaic themes, plot, and character tropes that it is easy to get cynical when a new book comes along claiming to be something totally different and fresh. I simply cannot count the number of times I have cracked open a book advertised as “not your typical fantasy” and then after 100 pages been disappointed yet again because typical is exactly what it was. So it was with more than a little dose of skepticism that I picked up an ARC of Katherine Arden’s debut novel The Bear and the Nightingale. I will say that I was encouraged to see that both Terry Brooks and Naomi Novik gave the book glowing praise, so with that in my back pocket, I dove into the story.

The Bear and the Nightingale is a fairy tale, which in and of itself is somewhat rare in a genre lately dominated by epic high fantasy, military fantasy, and gritty grimdark. The story takes place in a medieval Russian village at the edge of a cold, snowy, and unforgiving wilderness. Pyotr Vladimirovich lives in this isolated village with his five children. His last-born daughter Vasya; however, is very different from her other siblings. Even before her birth, Pyotr’s first wife Marina knew that there was a specific role destined for Vasya and that even though it might end with her own death, she must go through with the pregnancy to bring her baby into the world. Marina does in fact pass away not too long after delivering Vasya but before dying, she forces her husband to promise that he will always look after precious Vasya and keep her safe. There is definitely a sense during this conversation that Marina is certain that Vasya will be special and needed for some unknown reason. Some months after his wife’s death, Pyotr travels on a long journey to Moscow with the goal of finding a new wife to help him raise his children. While there, a mysterious blue-eyed stranger approaches and hands him a necklace with a beautiful gem and implores him to give the priceless jewel to his newborn daughter as a gift. The stranger also insists that Pyotr make a promise to him that Vasya will keep it with her at all times and never part with it for any reason. Pyotr, not wishing to offend the man, accepts the gift and presents it to his daughter when he returns home some months later. He also returns with a new wife who sees demons everywhere she looks. Are they real or are they the delusions of a woman with mental illness? Even more peculiar is that ever since Vasya received the strange necklace, she has begun seeing mythical creatures of her own and can also speak with them. First there’s the gnome-like creature living in her father’s horse stables, then there’s the frog-like fairy creature who makes its home at the bottom of the bog not too far from their cabin. As Vasya becomes more adept at conversing with these mythical creatures, we begin to wonder for what purpose is this happening? Is there an evil lurking inside the wooded village that must be fought at all costs? Are the demons that her new stepmother is seeing in every corner of their cabin truly demons? And what part does Vasya and her new mythical friends have to play in keeping the evil contained and potentially vanquishing it altogether?

When I finished the last page of The Bear and the Nightingale, I was exhausted. Not in a bad way, but it really is an emotionally draining novel. So much of the story is very personal and Ms. Arden does an excellent job of making you emotionally invested in the characters. I really genuinely liked Vasya and I routed for her throughout the story. I felt sad for Pyotr and wanted to see him conquer the sadness of losing his wife and become the father he wished to be for his children. I felt angry when Pyotr’s new wife fell completely under the spell of the overly-devout priest who came to stay with their family. All of these emotions were elicited because a talented author brought them out of me. If I didn’t care about any of the characters, none of it would have mattered. But it did! Therein lies the brilliance of this novel, because yes, it is a fairy tale and a great story. But what makes it even better is the way the characters become attached to you and you can’t shake them. You think about them on your drive to work. You agonize over their plight while lying in bed before you fall asleep. It is truly a testament to Ms. Arden’s skill in her craft that she can create such a wonderful reading experience. In the end, I have to say that The Bear and the Nightingale deserves all of the praise it has gotten up to this point. If you are looking for a phenomenal fairy tale fantasy read, you can’t go wrong with this book. The history and mythology that is also intermingled into the story gives it an added dimension that will please readers who enjoy those elements in their stories. Highly recommended.

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10-stars

This is an excellent book! A welcome change, as reviewer Nick says, from the formulaic plot and characters that fill much of today's fantasy market. The Bear and the Nightingale presents well-drawn characters given an interesting story to inhabit in a well thought out land based on the Russia of the middle ages, a time when old and new religions existed uneasily side by side. Add some demons, vampires, and creatures of folklore and mythology; in Ms. Arden's capable hands, it all combines into a wonderful story. For a debut book, especially, this is one terrific book! Can't wait for the sequel!

9.8/10 from 2 reviews

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