Title and Author: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Publication Date: January 10th, 2017
Genre: Historical Fiction, Fairytale Inspired
How I got it: Thanks to Netgalley and Random House/Del Rey for providing me a copy in exchange for an honest review.
The Bear and the Nightingale begins with a fairy tale, told on a cold Russian night around the warmth of an oven’s fire, to a little girl named Vasilisa and her brothers.
Some fairy tales can become reality.
Born in the heart of winter, from the day Vasilisa Petrovna, or Vasya, is born, her family knows she’s different, though they still love her with a fierce devotion. Vasya’s mother Marina dies during childbirth, bequeathing Vasya her mystical powers. Wanting a mother for his children, Vasya’s father travels to Moscow where he finds a new wife, Anna, a relative of Marina’s. Anna, like Vasya and Marina, has the sight. They can see the chyerti and domovoi — guardian spirits and creatures from Russian folklore — that grace the Russian landscape, though when Anna sees them she believes them to be demons, while Vasya sees them for what they truly are.
When Father Konstantin becomes their village priest, Anna confesses to him that she sees demons everywhere, and the Father knows what he’s meant to do in this backward village — abolish the demons and bring the people back to God. The best way to do this, he believes, is through fear. Threatening God’s wrath, he convinces the villagers to stop leaving food out for the domovoi. However, instead of saving the village, he gives power to the evil bear god. Only the god Winter and Vasya can save the village.
The Bear and the Nightingale blends a variety of Russian folklore with history from the Middle Ages. While I’m no expert at Russian folklore, I did pick up on a few fairytale references, like the fairy tales “Vasilisa the Beautiful” and “The Death of Koschei the Deathless“. In an interview, Arden also mentions the firebird, “The Twelve Months,” and “Morozko.”
Vasya is a fun perspective to read from. She’s impulsive and independent, and her interactions with the chyerti and domovoi are the most engaging aspects of the novel. Many reviewers have issues with the portrayal of the Christian priest as a villain. I didn’t necessarily have issues with that aspect, though all the characters would’ve benefited from a bit more nuance. While I like and dislike the characters I’m supposed to, a part of me feels like no one is all villain or all hero. However, that’s a legitimate way to tell stories, and keeps with the fairytale tradition.
Another minor quibble, I wouldn’t want to count the number of times Vasya is compared to a horse (this is especially annoying when her father does it. I understand it when she’s being objectified, but he’s supposed to be different, more of an ideal father).
However, overall The Bear and the Nightingale is a magical and fun read. If you enjoyed Uprooted by Naomi Novik or Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente (both Eastern European, historical fairytale novels), or The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, you’re likely to enjoy this as well. It lacks the darkness of Valente and the romance of Novik and is faster paced than The Golem and the Jinni, but it’s along the same lines.
I wonder if this is going to be a series? I would definitely be willing to pick up where we left off with Vasya. She’s got to have some more adventures, and I want to read about them.