BOOK REVIEW: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale
By: Katherine Arden
Publisher: Ebury Digital
Publication Date: 12 January 2017
Format: Ebook, 336 pages

In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, an elderly servant tells stories of sorcery, folklore and the Winter King to the children of the family, tales of old magic frowned upon by the church.

But for the young, wild Vasya these are far more than just stories. She alone can see the house spirits that guard her home, and sense the growing forces of dark magic in the woods… (Goodreads)

Translated from the original Russian and featuring a host of traditional folklore, The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden offers something different when it comes to the fantasy genre.

The book begins with the maternal grandmother, Dunya, telling the tale of the Winter King. The story goes that a father was convinced to send his daughter into the icy forest by her stepmother, where she encounters the Winter King and is honoured with a dowry for her courage. However, when the stepmother sends her own daughter into the forest she fails the King’s test and is instead found frozen in the woods. The tale is supposed to be a warning for the children about straying into the forest, but for Vasya the story seems to hold a deeper resonance. She is the daughter of Pyotr Vladimirovich, and her mother died in childbirth believing her youngest daughter would have a deep affinity with the natural world.

Vasya is definitely a free spirit, always escaping into the woods even when she has been warned otherwise. So much so, that one day she strays too far and finds a one-eyed man under a gnarled tree. This grotesque figure tries to convince Vasya to stay with him and invite him into her home, but she is saved by a horseman and found by her father and brothers. They search for a sign of the one-eyed man, but the gnarled tree is nowhere to be found and they put it down to the musings of a young girl.

As she grows older, Vasya becomes more attuned to the forest and the mystical beings that lurk in the homestead and protect the family. This is against the wishes of her new stepmother, who can also see the creatures but believes them to be a sign of madness. She instead places reliance on the church and a visiting priest, believing that she can beat the demons out of Vasya and make her into a nice girl suitable for marriage. However, what they don’t realise is that Vasya will be their only hope when forces start to change in the forest and when the protection they have enjoyed thus far starts to waver.

This fantasy novel was somewhat more unusual than others, drawing heavily on folklore and organic creatures compared to the more fantastical creations found in urban fantasy. This worked given the aged Russian setting and the choice of a cold village far away from the wonders of Moscow and St Petersburg. It was a place where rumours could circulate and everyone knew each others’ business, making Vasya into that rebellious child who all the neighbours are wary of. She has always stood out as an oddball and the rumours about unrest in the forest merely give her strangeness a sinister edge as far as everyone else is concerned.

To Vasya, and to us as readers, her relationship with the creatures of both home and forest seems entirely normal, as we can see the interactions that the villagers cannot. In communicating with them she gives away a part of herself each time, keeping them alive with her belief and dedication, even sharing her own blood when the villagers’ disbelief threatens their existence. They are being swayed to abandon their old beliefs in favour of devotion to the church, leaving Vasya as the only one who fights on their behalf, even if it means she seems more heathen. She is fiercely protective of those she cares about, and will not stand for them being threatened by anyone, determined to protect her family even after they too start to shun her rebellious behaviour.

I really liked her as a heroine as she maintained her passion throughout, showing determination when it came to saving the spirits and yet still girlishly innocent and naïve of the bigger picture. She is blissfully ignorant of marriage and what is expected of her as a woman, with part of her wanting to believe that she can stay in the village forever with the spirits, as she always has done. It is under their guidance that her spiritual power and abilities grow, with everything coming to a fast-paced conclusion when the Winter King finally rears his head. All of the loose ends are tied up, making this fantasy novel a great standalone if you don’t want to get sucked into a longer series.

A novel that places greater emphasis on folklore than fantasy, this book transports you to the icy wilderness of a remote Russian village and introduces you to a menagerie of different spirits that you won’t have met anywhere else. It is cleverly constructed to combine a childhood fairytale with Vasya’s reality, with everything culminating in a fantasy battle between good and evil. This novel is delightfully different and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a one-off read or with an interest in traditional folklore.




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