The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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.
Nick Taraborrelli, 9.5/10

The Bear and the Nightingale is a book I’ve been looking forward to reading for quite some time, not only because of Nick Taraborrelli’s above positive review, but because it promised (as Nick mentioned), to be something extremely different. Set in 14th century Russia and having the format of a fairy tale (and a Russian fairy tale at that), rather than the usual medieval type fantasy, I was definitely anticipating exploring some new, frosty horizons.

Based on a traditional Russian tale (which Arden is kind enough to recount to us in the first chapter), this is the story of Vasylisa Petrovna, youngest daughter of the Boyar Pyotr Vladimirovich, a wealthy land owner living in the village of Lesnaya Zemlya, several weeks ride north of Moscow. When Pyotr’s wife Marina; herself born of a strange heritage insists against all advice on having a fifth child; despite being certain to die in childbirth, nobody can deny there is something strange and wild about Vasya, after all, she can see and talk to the various minor gods and spirits that inhabit house and forest, and prefers to spend her time roaming the woods and riding horses rather than sewing or working at the oven like most women. Problems begin however when Pyotr reluctantly marries Anna Ivanovna, the great prince of Moscow’s young cousin. Far from being the mother to Vasya Pyotr Hopes, Anna proves unstable, fretful and capricious; living in constant terror of the “demons,” which apparently only she can see. When the ambitiously devout new priest Konstantin Nikonovich learns of Anna’s belief, he sees it as a sign that the people of Lesnaya Zemlya have incurred the wrath of god. But something less than divine is stirring in the woods, an ancient being that feeds on fear and death, and in the end it is only Vasya, and a promise made to an enigmatic frost demon which stand in its way.

My desire for a new world to explore was certainly met here; almost from the first sentence. Given that my knowledge of both Russian history and Russian folk law is approximately zero, the setting of The Bear and the Nightingale felt almost fantastical to me, what with the polysyllabic Russian names (names which also had different versions as endearments or common names), and because of the landscape and detail of the book itself. One thing I definitely admire here is the way that Arden is able to both write in an epic fairy tale like style, using phrases such as “grief smote her heart” which in other hands might seem overwrought, and evoke bitter reality of the Russian winter, with snowdrifts as high as houses, and ovens which are used as sleeping platforms in the cold of winter as well as for cooking. It’s also to her credit that Arden is able to use her at times rather overly stylistic language to conjure up a picture of everyday life, with brutal or kindly weather, the needs of harvesting and sowing plants and even the meals eaten, and yet to give things enough of a fantastical age to not make you feel as if you’re stuck in the dark ages.

Part of this touch of the fantastic of course comes from her wonderful evocation of Russian spirits and godlings, from the Domovoi, a household sprite who takes care of miner chores, to the Rusalka, a lorelei like creature which tempts men to drown in the lake. With the way Arden drops these beings into the text, we get the strong impression that these spirits are very much part of the landscape, and even while it is just Vasya who can see them, making offerings to some and avoiding others is as essential to everyday life as lighting a fire or milking a cow.

This slow, almost impressionistic style is also applied to characters, since despite the distant setting the characters are all people we come to know, from Vasya’s sensitive, charismatic elder brother Sasha, to her often exasperated motherly old nurse Dunya, not to mention Pyotr himself.

Unfortunately, all this detail means that the book moves rather slowly, indeed, the priest Konstantin does not enter the story until the sixth hour of a twelve hour narrative. Though there are a lot of interesting things to see along the way, from the carousing and mild politicking of the court at Moscow, to the personality and style of various horses whose speech Vasya learns (this is definitely a story for lovers of the equestrian), there is no denying that at times I was rather waiting for the plot to move on.

A further problem is while the characters are drawn extremely well, there seemed to be a distinct tension between the ways Arden depicted the actual relationships of Vasya and her family, and her desire to showcase several “themes”. For example, though it is emphasised how much Vasya loves her family, at the same time Vasya’s constant refusal to behave like a “proper maiden” felt rather anachronistic. Indeed, at a time when literal starvation would be possible if crops weren’t harvested stored and preserved, Vasya’s desire to roam freely through the woods or take a day learning to ride feels a little off.

In many ways she felt more like the heroin of a time-travel story than a character in a believable historical setting, quite happy to hobnob with spirits, ramble the wild landscape and ride the beautiful Russian horses, but less a fan of the more stayed patterns of historical life.

I couldn’t help comparing Arden with Juliet Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest, also a retelling of a traditional fairy tale in a historical setting, but where the protagonist’s very indomitable heroism is shown through her participation in so called “women’s work”.

It also did not help that there is a clear divide between the sassy and independent minded Vasya, and all the other gentle, traditionally motherly women who delight in jewellery and romance and are quite happy with housework. I personally doubt that the complex task of running a home in such a harsh environment would foster a docile disposition myself.

This problem of course was exacerbated when the issue of marriage arose, since unlike her gentle sisters Vasya is quite outspoken about not being “some man’s brood mare”, and her family, even her kindly older brother, and her loving father Pyotr simply tell her “this is the lot of women”, a phrase repeated several times throughout the book.

In Pyotr’s case there might be a little justification, since he fears Vasya’s connection to a frost demon were she not married, however his treatment of her here still entirely lacked nuance, indeed Pyotr contrasts starkly with Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, also a loving father arranging his daughter’s marriages in a culture where such arrangements are quite expected, but one who suffers extreme conflicts between his daughters wishes and his culture’s expectations, particularly since of course Vasya’s perspective husband is a typical thoughtless playboy, and thus very easy to dislike.

This isn’t to say of course that I approve of arranged marriage, any more than I believe women should be limited to housework; after all it’s me that does the cooking in our house. However, it is disappointing that an author with such an otherwise detailed view of characters and such a clear grasp of a very distant period in history as Arden apparently has, cannot allow that attitudes in that period might be different to those we have today, and let her readers actually have an alternative experience of the way people thought, lived and loved, rather than just reaffirming expected modern attitudes with a one note presentation.

Unfortunately, Arden has a similar problem with Christianity. When, earlier in the book Vasya’s decent older brother Sasha desires to become a monk, I hoped that Arden might actually be able to show that not all Christianity might necessarily be evil. In the character of Konstantin however, Arden definitely failed. Depicted at first as an artistic charismatic priest with a genuine desire to help people, I hoped initially that Konstantin would be more than a cliché. Sadly I was extremely disappointed here, since Konstantin rapidly turns into a hell and damnation merchant who dotes on people’s fear, and the only goal of his Christian teaching is apparently to reduce individuals to a state of terrified submission.

Of course, to an extent some of this fear occurs due to the influence of supernatural beings, however, nowhere does Arden intimate that people might gain more from Christianity.

The Washington post described Arden as “depicting the conflict between Christian and pagan beliefs”, however, a conflict implies two sides, and here there is definitely only one. Indeed, with the various Russian sprites and godlings depicted as real creatures, and nowhere any suggestion of the reality of Christian divinities, Arden shows a pretty clear bias. It would be interesting to consider whether the Bear and the Nightingale would’ve been so well received had Arden made it the story of a Christian who experienced actual divinity debunking pagan beliefs in intangibles.

Of course, I wouldn’t necessarily suggest Arden needed an actual angel or other Christian divinity to appear, but at least some evidence that Christianity was more than this childishly simplistic “be good or go to hell” version Arden presents. Indeed, I will be interested to see if, in future books Sasha reappears, whether Arden can actually acknowledge that as a monk Sasha’s faith inspires him to actually be nice to people, much less that he have faith in something beyond himself.

The conclusion was little out of left field. With scarcely two hours to go we abruptly enter fantasy territory, with a lot of facts introduced rather quickly, from gods surviving on human belief, to an almost Pratchett like magic system based around perception, ideas which might have been fascinating to explore earlier in the book, but here felt a little crammed in. One aspect of the conclusion, Vasya’s evoking the household spirits would actually have worked better had Vasya been a little more inclined to pay attention at home rather than ramble through the woods and go on long rides.

That being said, the concluding battle was certainly epic enough, and I particularly liked the way Vasya’s family weren’t entirely absent either.

While the book ended on a question, its manifestly the first in a trilogy, and while I would’ve preferred if yet again Vasya’s family hadn’t repeated that she was going against “the lot of women”, and just respected her, as indeed such a loving family might have been more likely to, at the same time I was glad to see things at least worked out, though again I really wish she could’ve ended father Konstantin’s story with something better than a rather hackneyed descent into lust and dismissal as a coward.

In general The Bear and the Nightingale had some distinct plusses, a wonderfully rich setting; some absolutely gorgeously described Russian myths, and characters that were drawn vividly.

The problem is that all the beautiful description could not quite pretty up the obvious and anachronistic ax that Arden is grinding here.

Yet that being said, there was at least enough here outside of axe range to remain interesting, and setup some ideas for a sequel, indeed despite the at times slow plot and slightly too obvious agenda, I probably will go on to the other books in the series in the hopes that Arden’s undoubted strengths as an author, her gift for characters, poetically epic writing, and detailed research into a distant and likely to most of us, very obscure part of history might win out in the end.
Dark, 7.1/10: There were no angels anywhere, when a nightingale sang in Gorky square

8/10 It is truly a testament to Ms. Arden's skill in her craft that she can create such a wonderful reading experience

Reviews by and Dark

2 positive reader review(s) for The Bear and the Nightingale

The Bear and the Nightingale reader reviews

from United States

I loved this book. Could not put it down. Recommended it to my daughter and teenage grand daughters. Great fairy tale fantasy!
10/10 ()

from United States

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!
10/10 ()

9.4/10 from 3 reviews

All Katherine Arden Reviews