Hey everyone! I recently read The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. This book won’t be out for sale until tomorrow, January 10, 2017, but I did have an ARC to read before the release.
To start, a little about the book. I first received this book from the Random House booth at BookCon last year in May at the McCormick Place in Chicago. I was rearranging my book shelves when I found this one again and remembered it was scheduled for publication this month and decided to read it and review it beforehand.
Now, the cover on my book says it goes on sale January 17th so it seems to have been pushed up a week since the ARC was printed. Since I hadn’t planned to get this review up until the 16th I thought I’d push it up to today because of the new date. I’ve done some research and it seems that the US cover is the same as the one I have, but the gold will be shiny foil and it’ll just be all around fancier. I really was amazed by the cover, a snowy forest backdrop behind a house where the light is on and someone on the cover walking in. The UK cover looks amazing as well, floral and colorful, with animals and a very Russian theme in it. I personally do prefer the US version but both are beautiful.
The Bear and the Nightingale is written by Katherine Arden, and it is her first book. This book is the first of a series of three, according to Arden herself on Goodreads. I was surprised at this. The book seemed like a standalone and I think it would have been fine as such but I’ll likely take a look at the others as they come out (Arden has said the second book is in the editing stages now).
And onto the book. The story takes place in Russia, in a farming village far away from the cities. Slight spoilers to follow in the next part but for nothing that is not already included in the book summary or too central to the story. Below is the book summary from Goodreads (and the back of the book):
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.
I gave this book 4/5 stars. It reads like a beautiful fairy tale and is so vivid that you can see it unfold before your eyes. I am unfamiliar with Russian fairy tales but this story didn’t make me feel like I was missing out because it did such a wonderful job of telling the tale within the book.
As the blurb above states, the main character is Vasilisa, called Vasya by her family. Unfortunately her mother dies when she is born, and her father and the nursemaid are left to raise the wild baby Vasya and her older siblings. Vasya grows and discovers she has a magic that allows her to see the spirits that surround them and protect them. She lives happy and free until her father goes to Moscow to find a new wife. Vasya’s new stepmother, Anna, can also see the spirits and is terrified by them.
Anna forbids the family from honoring them in an effort to make the spirits leave. She is aided by the new priest of the village, Father Konstantin, who believes that fear is the way to win the people and convert them. Of course, this causes problems with the spirits and Vasya does her best to keep her people alive. When her stepmother realizes that it is Vasya working to keep the spirits strong she starts to plot to have Vasya married and sent away with her new husband, or sent away to a convent far away from the village. Vasya then has to spring into action to save the village and her family’s lives before the fairy tales become real events.
I loved how this book was written, it felt like reading a fairy tale, even though it was clear that the only fairy tales in the books were the ones the nursemaid told the children. In fact, the fairy tale at the beginning of the story is the tale that weaves most closely into the book. It was magical and there were so many details of Vasya’s world and medieval Russia that it really brought it to life for me. The magical storytelling did remind me of The Night Circus by Erin Morganstern (and it has been described as such) and The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak in how the story pulls you in and keeps you in your seat.
The pacing did feel a little odd, and it is a huge contributor for why the book got 4 instead of 5 stars. The book didn’t get into the actual conflict until the last third of the book. The first two parts were beautifully written but nothing really happened besides Vasya’s childhood, then what happens to Vasya when her new stepmother arrives. Even after Anna and Konstantine’s arrival things are slow to pick up, there is plenty of stuff happening, just not quite as quickly and it doesn’t always seem to connect so at the time it feels like it’s just adding a road bump or a detour or something along the highway. It’s sort of hard to explain because while it feels like nothing that is actually going to affect the outcome or the main part of the story is taking up a lot of pages, it’s not really boring or tedious. It’s still interesting, but you are aware that it’s taking time to get through and after getting so far you want more to happen already!
Okay, so now there will be spoilers going forward. I do recommend that you read the book without the spoilers and come back when you’ve read the book! Until you’ve read the book, skip this part and head to the bottom of the page! (After the photo of the book below.)
I was blown away by Vasya’s bravery. She at first doesn’t really realize that no one else can see the spirits as she can. Once she does she doesn’t freak out or think herself mad as Anna does, she instead uses her gifts to communicate and interact with the spirits and get to know them. She helps the house spirit guard the house, she learns the horse language from the stable spirit, the horses teach her to ride as a result, Vasya saves the townfolk from the water spirit who is looking to drown her victims, and stands against the evil spirit who wants Vasya and wishes to destroy the villagers. Vasya even allies with the death spirit in order to save her family.
Of course, Vasya is protective to almost to a fault. She keeps Father Konstantin from being drowned by the water spirit when so many problems could have been avoided if she hadn’t intervened. She also chose to stay with at the house with her stepmother to defend the house although her stepmother is instrumental in turning the village against Vasya and the spirits Vasya is working hard to keep happy. She also wants to keep the village safe but the villagers all whisper about her and call her a witch, thinking that the spirits she is helping are evil when really they’re defending the village. As per usual, a lot could have been resolved should people have been willing to have open and honest conversations with each other and with Vasya. But it was very realistic in the sense that people don’t stop to talk and learn and grow, and rather chose to stick to their faulted beliefs.
As a female, Vasya is expected to act as a submissive woman to the men in her life. She scares away potential suitors although she is expected to marry a noble and have children. If she doesn’t get married she will be sent to a convent, locked away from the world she wishes to see. Anna tries her best to get Vasya to behave how she thinks she should, but luckily Vasya keeps her rebellious and free thoughts and lives how she wants, putting her happiness above her stepmother’s.
A lot of Vasya’s freedom, or lack thereof, was tied to her father. It seemed a little odd that her father chooses to side with his wife although he can plainly see that Vasya was too young and wild to be married. Even the nursemaid and Vasya’s brother tell him what he had known, that Vasya was young and she hasn’t even begun to think of male partners or of love. Despite everyone knowing that Vasya would not go through with it they all still acted surprised when she drove away her betrothed. Having known her since she was born, I would have imagined her father would have known better than to try to force Vasya into something that she didn’t want to do, although it was often stated that he didn’t love Vasya as much as he did his other children as Marina had died to give birth to Vasya. It also spoke to how little attention he paid to her when Vasya rode to him without a saddle or even a halter and he had no idea she could ride. Of course, his lack of attention provided Vasya the freedom to learn and do what she’d like, but her father would always appear to try and rein her back in, unsuccessfully of course.
I didn’t particularly appreciate that in the end Vasya wasn’t the hero of the story, and her father was the one to save them all. Of course, he died to save Vasya, and she finally got her freedom as her brothers respect her and love her in a way that her father and stepmother couldn’t.
I was also kind of annoyed how Vasya’s siblings, Olga and Sasha, seemed to disappear from the story since they had added so much to it at the beginning. According to a question Arden answered on Goodreads they’ll play a bigger part in the next book but as I had read it thinking it was a standalone, it seemed odd that she was so close to them only to have them disappear. Both Sasha and Alyosha were my favorite of Vasya’s brothers, as they accepted their sister, Alyosha more so than Sasha (who disappeared from the book when he went to become a monk), rather than try to tell her how to behave.
And that’s my review on The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. I do recommend you check this book out when you get the chance if it sounds like something you might enjoy. It’s definitely a good winter read!
What book have you read and loved lately?
Thanks for reading!