It’s a snowy day here in New York, the kind of day that is perfect for gathering round the fire and listening to old tales of clever heroines having adventures in wintry Russian forests. Of course, if you don’t happen to know any old Russian folktales, you can get the same sort of effect by curling up with The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. There’s been a lot of buzz about The Bear and the Nightingale lately. I’ve seen it compared to the Night Circus and to Neil Gaiman’s work so I was extremely eager to get my hands on the book and see if it lived up to the hype. I am also a big fan of books that play with fairy tale motifs and this story, which plays with Russian folklore and stories, seemed to have a lot of potential.
The book tells the story of a young girl, Vasya, who is able to see and interact with the household spirits and various fey-like creatures in the fields and forests that surround her father’s home. This ability and Vasya’s family observance of the little offerings and rituals that honor these creatures keeps the family safe and ensures their prosperity. When Vasya’s father brings home a new bride – a hysterical, tortured woman who can also see the household spirits but who is convinced they are demons to be feared – the balance between their people’s Christian faith and the old ways is thrown off. And when a charismatic, fanatic of a priest arrives – bringing fear and threats of hellfire with him – the protections erode completely. The dead begin to walk, a cruel winter descends, and a dark force starts to rise in the forest. Only Vasya, with the help of Lord Frost, the spirit of Winter and of Death, can stand between her family and the Bear who is coming to devour them.
Now that I’ve read The Bear and the Nightingale, I must admit to having a more mixed reaction than I expected. I hated the one-dimensional, tired old trope of a villain, a fanatic, intolerant priest who, in his quest for glory and control, dominates the village with his message of fear and becomes an unwitting pawn of the darkness. But the world that Katherine Arden built is rich and interesting and I loved her use of Russian myths and fairy tales. From what little I know about Russian folk stories and the little details Arden weaves into the tale, especially the part of the story where Vasya is brought to Lord Frost’s home, there is room to delve deeper and explore in this world. It also seemed to me that The Bear and the Nightingale had every indication of being the first books in a series. If I am right about that, then all the interesting characters that are introduced and then disappear, (like Sasha, Vasya’s brother who leaves home to become a warrior monk in the service of God and Russia’s Grand Prince), and all of Vasya’s future adventures that are alluded to but never explored go from being a side note to potential books look forward to. So, while The Bear and the Nightingale didn’t exactly live up to my immediate expectations, I am willing to say that it is an excellent investment in future stories and I look forward to seeing what Katherine Arden does next.
What do you think, book lovers? What’s your favorite book to curl up with on a snowy day? What should I read / review next? Let me know in the comments below. And until next time, take care and happy reading!
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