The Bear and the Nightingale

The Bear and the Nightingale

by Katherine Arden


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.

The Bear and the Nightingale is set in the 1300s in the northern forests of the Land of Rus’. Our main character, Vasilisa, or Vasya, is a gifted girl who must fight to save her father’s land from being destroyed by the evil spirit, Bear. Vasya struggles to find her place in a world where women have set tasks while her people attempt to find a balance between old and new beliefs.

I have strong conflicting thoughts about The Bear and the Nightingale. The aspects I enjoyed had me finishing the book over a weekend, but the aspects I disliked have left me reluctant to recommend it.

Let’s start with the things I liked. I adored the relationship between Dunya and Vasya. It was so kind, understanding, and nurturing. I found myself smiling while reading of Dunya doing her best to ‘tame’ the young Vasya, and failing miserably. I also loved the relationships between the siblings, especially between Vasya and Alyosha. The setting was fantastic. Arden’s prose had me immersed in the winter woods from the first word. I could smell the mead, feel the warmth of the fire, hear the faint crunch of snow underfoot, and embrace the struggle of the harvest. She kept me yearning for more information as each of the old world spirits emerged on the page. And Morozco…he was the main character that kept me reading. Just the complexity of his existence and the depth of his secrets are enough to carry the whole story. I wanted to know the details of his thoughts, his plans, his powers.

After that you’re probably wondering why I didn’t love The Bear and the Nightingale. Well, Iwould have preferred the book to be a standalone instead of the first in the series, which would have allowed for more questions to be answered by the end. I will note the pacing was very well done for a debut novel, though there were moments, such as the final battle, where I longed for more detail. And Arden is definitely able to provide unique and detailed characters. But still, I couldn’t commit to loving this story.

There are two reasons for this. First, I did not like how Christianity was handled. I liked how the village people mixed their old beliefs with their new religion. I understood the priest’s drive to rid the village of the old ways. However, I did not like how the religion was portrayed. At all. And this isn’t because I am a Christian. It was because the portrayal was only negative. All priests were political, power hungry people. Konstantin was a vain, cruel, selfcentered man who manipulated his ‘flock’ for personal entertainment. I know the religion was quite different in the 1300s but it only focuses on the need to fear God with not a single positive attribute of the faith shared. Honestly, the only time the church was painted in a remotely positive light was through Sasha’s eyes. I could make myself get past this if it wasn’t for the second point.

Second, I despised Anna. Sure we shouldn’t like the evil stepmother, but I despised EVERYTHING about her. From the madness, the religious fervor, the cruelty towards her stepdaughter, and the recurring issue of marital rape; she didn’t have one single redeeming trait. And I was relieved **SPOILER** when she finally died. The marital rape was unnerving. I get that it was part of the time and culture, but it was still hard to read. However, I couldn’t bring myself to even pity Anna because she was so horrid. She was too one-sided. The lack of empathy I felt for her made it hard to read, and I wished she was more developed. (And I admit to having a hard time reading the rape and ‘women’s role’ scenes)

Will I continue with the series? I want to say yes because I am intrigued by Morozco. And because I enjoyed how hauntingly dark The Bear and the Nightingale is. Still, I don’t see myself clamoring to pick up the next book. I do however look forward to Arden’s development as a writer. I find her background in history and cultures interesting and I think her writing, and story telling, will just continue to improve as time passes.

Check it out and let me know what you think.


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