Updated: Nov 4, 2021
Didn't quite know what to expect from this and was pleasantly surprised!
The Bear and the Nightingale is a historical fantasy book based in a remote village in 14th century Russia. It follows the story of a young girl born with some serious old magic in her bloodline, who has to fight to keep her community safe from forces no one really understands while a priest from Moscow comes to fill in after their old priest passes and do the complete opposite of helping. It’s a coming of age story that centers around the age old struggle between Old and New, and what happens when we completely lose sight of ourselves in that struggle.
SPOILERS: The next two paragraphs discuss plot detail.
Our main character, Vasilisa Petrovna, is the daughter of boyar Pyotr Vladimirovich and Marina Ivanovna, a woman born of a mysterious witch-like character that, by context, seems to have stagnated and lost herself as wife of the Crown Prince, and who keeps Christian faith and old Russian folk practice intertwined in her community before her death. When her mother dies birthing her, and Pyotr remarries the Crown Prince’s daughter, Anna Ivanovna, who sees spirits but thinks them demons, Vasya’s life takes a considerable turn for the worst, and she ends up having to fight both the misconceptions of the townsfolk who think her a witch and a she-devil while also fighting off the supernatural forces trying to swallow the lives of her townsfolk by weakening their fields, burning their homes, and inspiring fear (the last of which begins with the priest, who preaches of the traditional hellfire, repentance, Judgment Day topics and convinces them to become fearful as they neglect their household spirits, thus bringing danger closer when these spirits are no longer strong enough to protect them).
She triumphs in the end, befriending Morozko, who knows himself as Death, while others know him as the Winter King from old folktales (or winter frost-demon, depending on who you ask). Together, they defeat his brother, the Bear, who thrives of human fear and anger and turns many of the weakened chyerti, or house and nature spirits, against Vasya. However, she still leaves home at the end, because while the Bear is contained again and disaster avoided, there’s still no room left for her in the communities of men, who haven’t stopped thinking of her as a she-devil—nor would they probably even believe that she saved them all if she tried to explain it, since only she sees these spirits in the first place. Her brother Alyosha, at least, kills an upyr with her and believes that some crazy nonsense is going down, but everyone else writes it off as fairy tales (despite the pretty gruesome deaths happening to livestock and people alike). Vasya rides away at the end, on her ethereal horse Solovey (Nightingale), to the house of Morozko.
Why I Loved The Bear and the Nightingale
There are two more books in this series, and while this book is absolutely capable of standing on its own as a complete story, it also invites the reader to imagine the next step of this journey. Marketing-wise, it’s brilliant; this story is still whole and complete, and yet there’s opportunity to go further in this world with these characters; there’s no dissatisfaction for the reader or lack of closure that sometimes a series might have at the first book. (I, however, will absolutely plan on getting the rest of the books in this series, because series based on Slavic folklore is exactly what I’m trying to fill my shelves with.)
The writing holds a fairytale quality to it that stays with the reader and keeps them going; it takes the spirit of a fairytale, those short stories meant to be orally retold and therefore small enough to remember while still demonstrating a lesson, and creates a novel spanning a timeline of several years out of it. Katherine wastes no time on parts of the story that don’t serve the plot, preferring instead to give solid summaries and keep the pacing moving. There are times to breathe in the story, and there are times for action, and none of them felt like parts to skip over (the only time I caught myself skimming was when I was desperate to find out what was happening in the next chapter and simply flicked my eye over a paragraph to get to the next page). This is what I work for as a writer: each paragraph having its place, none of them leaving the reader feeling like they need to skim to work through it.
Beyond the fairytale summary style, the point of view shifts also aid in this effort. Arden uses these shifts well, helping us fill pieces of the narrative that our main character Vasya otherwise isn’t privy to without being wholly thrown into new heads all the time. We know our “camera characters” well; they’re introduced to us and solidified before they take charge of the story’s presentation, and their actions, wants, and beliefs make them solid and fully realized characters whose actions become completely understandable and appropriate in the story. All points of view serve the narrative and support the Why of each plot point, and it keeps it moving smoothly to the point that, if not for the fact that I had work in the morning, I likely would’ve finished this book in one sitting instead of three.
And, of course, as a speaker of a Slavic language myself, it was exciting to read the several transliterated words and understand them. While the words are different from Russian to my mother’s tongue, Slovene (podsnezhniki, snowdrops, are zvončki in Slovene, and solovey, nightingale, is slavec), the words are, from an etymological perspective, entirely understandable (pod means under, snezh means snow; the Russians, it seems, know the snowdrop as the “under-snow flower,” the one that pops up at the first hint of spring. It makes sense, especially as a zvonček is a small bell, suggesting Slovenians named the flower for its shape rather than its time of growing).
The use of folklore, as well, is exciting; to learn of the vodianoy, the rusalka, the domovoi, and the vazila was fascinating, and invited important questions in this theme of Old versus New: are the things we don’t understand bad for us? Or do they just need to be listened to, so that we might understand them after all? Not all are harmless, but not all are dangerous, either. I felt genuinely upset for the domovoi and vazila, especially; Arden does fabulous work not only inviting folklore into this story, but humanizing them enough to care about them. Folklore remains a fabulous draw for all things fantasy, so many of our old stories being, in their nature, otherworldly ways of explaining nature and giving lessons about it, and it finds its place well here, in this struggle with folk culture against dogmatic religion.
Critique on The Bear and the Nightingale
In all honesty, while there wasn’t much to critique in my view, there were moments that I felt could’ve been handled more elegantly. While I appreciate Arden’s summary and skipping to get to the actual points of the story that move the plot forward, I felt as though the time skips could’ve been handled more elegantly. At some points, nearly an entire decade simply disappears in a single line, and it feels jarring; it’s difficult to keep track of Vasilisa’s age as we watch her grow up over the years. Especially as the character herself doesn’t seem to change much, it becomes hard to grasp where her growth really lies, both physically and mentally and as a character.
More Spoiler: Ending
The ending of this book also felt resolved a bit too easily. I found myself asking, “that’s it? That’s all we needed to have happen?” And don’t get me wrong; I’m happy this was another Happily Ever After (to an extent), but after a lot of other characters wringing their hands for Vasilisa, and a lot of tragedy happening, it seems as if the bulk of the action takes only a few moments after an entire book (and an entire child’s lifetime and development) of set-up. It was a little disappointing to see it resolved so easily, and I wish there had been more struggle (and more development between Vasya and Morozko before the day was saved). There also didn’t seem to be any consequence for Morozko’s weakness, as he didn’t want to fight before midwinter, when he would be strongest—says several times that Vasya isn’t strong enough to go at this alone—and yet her father’s sacrifice and a few “remember when” lines to the turned chyerti were all it took to put a cap on the whole issue. It felt unearned to me, and I would’ve liked to see Vasya struggle more; she was essentially given a good long nap, plenty of food, and then sent back into the ring for round 2, which she won fairly easily.
Would I Recommend This?
In short: yes. What critique I have is important, I think, but it doesn’t make the book itself not worth reading. I loved this book, actually, and I found it not only easy to get into, but easy to absolutely devour. For those who love stories based on Slavic folklore, like the work of Naomi Novik, this is another lovely story that makes excellent use of bits and pieces of old stories, giving them new life in a new narrative. The characters are rich and full of desires, the world itself easily imaginable and changed based on those characters’ actions, and it gives the reader things to think about, as well as sides to take. I would definitely recommend others give it a try.