THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE
Series: The Bear and the Nightingale #1
Genre: Fantasy, Retellings, Historical
Publisher: Del Rey
Release date: January 10th 2017
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.
Beware the turning seasons.
The Bear and the Nightingale is a magical and chilling fairy tale that will steal your breath away. It draws on Russian folklore and mythology to weave an atmospheric — and at times dark and cold — story told in various POVs, with a slow and steady pace that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Katherine Arden’s debut novel is a thing of beauty. It has also earned a place on my favorites shelf! Arden’s lyrical writing mimics the tone of classic fairytales very well, and at the same time brings new life to old myths and makes them unique to her story. And what an incredible story it is!
This novel is told in way too many POVs to list, but its focus is on Vasilisa, a stubborn girl who always seems to attract trouble. Vasya is wild, strong-willed, and brave, and she lives in a world where there is more truth to fairy tales than people like to admit. Vasya is charming and easy to like, and as she grows up and develops as a character, that feeling only grows deeper.
In fact, The Bear and the Nightingale has an amazing set of characters. From Vasya’s family members to the mythological creatures, every character is layered and serves a purpose important to the plot. Even the villains transform throughout the story, and their descend into dark paths are both scary and very well-executed.
The slow pace actually serves this novel very well. It takes a while for things to unfold and for us to fully understand the implications of what is happening, but when we do it is in the best of ways. There is also a lot of foreshadowing, and Arden uses fairy tales as a resource to give us little details that will be important to the story/characters later on.
The ending is a bit of a question mark, as it leaves room for a lot of things to be explored. It does conclude the main arc, in a way that is both satisfying and a little bit sad. I’m sure Arden will do great things in the sequel to this installment, The Girl in the Tower, if this debut is any indication of her potential as a writer.
The Bear and the Nightingale has firmly earned its place in the list of my Favorite Books Ever. Arden’s writing is enchanting, the folklore is rich and interesting, and Vasya’s story and her journey will stay with me for a very long time. Fans of Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente will absolutely love this, as well as anyone who enjoys historical fantasy novels filled with myths and legends.