Friday, February 10, 2017

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden - Review

A magical debut novel for readers of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and Neil Gaiman’s myth-rich fantasies, The Bear and the Nightingale spins an irresistible spell as it announces the arrival of a singular talent with a gorgeous voice.

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.

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I'll start off by saying that I absolutely loved The Bear and the Nightingale. It reminded me so much of some of the books I read when I was younger, of the Night Circus and Shannon Hale books and books that are original but also based on fairytales or folklore. The writing is fantastic, the storytelling lilting and magical. 

The story shifts focus between our protagonist, Vasilisa, better known as Vasya, and another character, Konstantin, the priest that comes to stay in their town. Vasya is not the kind of female heroine one really expects from a story like this - she's not outwardly brave, she's quiet, she often takes the brunt of insults or hurtful words from those around her. However, in the magical world where the cold and forest has it's own kind of magic that those people fear, it is Vasya's kindness that helps her to befriend magical creatures and in the end, help to save those she loves from the more dangerous things in the forest. 

While Konstantin is not truly a main character, he is in opposition to Vasya's character. They both attempt to help protect her family but in two very different ways. I loved how their approach differed and how despite the intentions, Vasya's open-mindedness and kindness tends to be more successful that Konstantin's devout yet often times ignorant ideology. 

The world is magical and dark and dangerous. It's also bright and romantic. It's one kind of fairytale, one with gods and spirits and the walking dead, within another kind of fairytale, one with Russian aristocracy, a wicked stepmother, and the tensions between Russian lore and religious ideology. It is filled with action, danger, family drama, and a little bit of romance. Cinderella meets Anastasia meets Anna Karena. The story has everything to be successful but I truly think the writing and storytelling is what really makes the Bear and the Nightingale unique and truly shine. You'll be shivering with the cold, be in awe of the Russian court, be scared to look out your window when it's dark. It is so reminiscent of some classic fairytale, told with such elegance, beautiful imagery, and language that immerses the reader in the time period and world. 

The language might not be for everyone, sometimes feeling a little heavy or old-fashioned, though I believe that is what really makes the world feel real. The mix of reality with the touch of folklore might not appeal to some, the lines often purposely blurred. However, overall, I think part of the magic of this book are these very things, so I suggest pushing through and giving it a try.

This book was what really helped me get out of my reading slump and reminded me why I love stories like this. It was so refreshing and beautifully told and I highly recommend it to any reader who loves Russian folklore, the tale of East of the Sun West of the Moon, fairytale retellings, or just any well-written magical story with an unlikely heroine. And if you're in a reading slump. 
If you like The Bear and the Nightingale, I suggest Katurah and Lord Death!
Find out more about Katherine and her book here:

Born in Austin, Texas, Katherine Arden spent a year of high school in Rennes, France. Following her acceptance to Middlebury College in Vermont, she deferred enrollment for a year in order to live and study in Moscow. At Middlebury, she specialized in French and Russian literature. After receiving her BA, she moved to Maui, Hawaii, working every kind of odd job imaginable, from grant writing and making crêpes to guiding horse trips. Currently she lives in Vermont, but really, you never know.

Happy Reading!


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