Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale




Written by: Katherine Arden
Series: Winternight Trilogy
Sequence in Series: Book 1                                                                                               Hardcover: 323 pages
Publisher: Del Rey Books
Publication Date: January 10, 2017                                                                                           IBSN: 1101885939                                                                                                                      ISBN13: 9781101885932
Genre: Historical Fantasy

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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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This is an excellent debut novel for Katherine Arden, whose lyrical writing can at times be truly enchanting. I paired this book with Oliva Connecticut Reserve and wandered off the whiskey path to pair it with Stolichnaya Elit in honor of the books’ feudal Russian setting

The most interesting thing that Arden achieved in this book was to create an atmosphere so sophisticated and realistic that the environment itself became a nonspeaking character within the book. Arden also uses our experiences with the environment to fill in gaps of historical record – we don’t really know exactly what day to day life in medieval Russia was like – by drawing on its familiarity in a tactile manner. We feel the weather in our bones when it is cold and feel the emotion of a day where clouds are like wet cotton in the sky.

I found the characters to veer closely towards undeveloped, nearly caricatures of traditional fairy tale figures but Arden provides each with enough nuance within the moments of their existence that they hold a true possibility for being a real person. She does this through the interactions of the characters with the environment and with each other. The first two thirds of the book spend a great deal of time exploring family dynamics and the perils of coming of age, especially when one is a young girl very different from traditional expectations.

In the beginning, much of this exploration is overlaid with a weaving of Russian folklore that provides the story an exotic flavor and an intriguing nuance to the nature / environment character which is ever present. I did not know at the time of purchase but could eventually tell through the treatment of characters that this was to be the first in a series of books. Arden spends time creating characters she then sequesters from the readers’ sight in a manner traditional of setting up stories to be told at a later time.

It is within the plot and its many interwoven layers of story that Arden actually reveals her novice status, biting off more than she can elegantly chew. Much of the book is irrelevant to the plot, although it is all beautifully written. The story begins as a coming of age story, exploring family dynamics, trials against nature, and expectations. However, the book loses this thread and begins to explore the idea of modern versus “the old ways.” Then, the story veers into a bit of fantastical horror while moving the tension towards the difference between two religions. The entire while there is a sub plot of Russian folklore which feels almost extraneous to what the rest of the book is talking about and does not hold these other various threads together as a single story.

The ending feels as though Arden suddenly remembered she needed one. There is a battle of what was supposed to be an epic scale but truly feels like a rushed aside. It does not answer the family dynamics and coming of age the beginning of the book is about, nor does it answer the push and pull of the new against tradition, nor does it provide an answer to the religious tension built through the last third of the book. The ending does not tie the book together in any way and seems more pointless to the story than any of the other immaterial details written about at length throughout the book.

Overall, the book is well written. It is easier to forgive the short-comings because of its beautiful use of language. I am therefore willing to read the second, and possibly the third, book of this series based on my reading of this first one and my hope that Arden grows as a storyteller.

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