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The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden– a Russian Fairytale that Leaves You Breathless

5th July, 2017

Book Review : The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

In a village in northern Rus’ a girl named Vasya is born. Her mother dies in childbirth with the hope that she has passed on her magical lineage to the new child. As Vasya grows older, a dark force grows stronger in the woods.

Review

“It was late winter in northern Rus’, the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow. The brilliant February landscape had given way to the dreary gray of March, and the household of Pyotr Vladimirovich were all sniffling from the damp and thin from six weeks’ fasting on black bread and fermented cabbage. But no one was thinking of chilblains or runny noses, or even, wistfully, of porridge and roast meats, for Dunya was to tell a story.”

How can anyone not pick up a book that begins with a stunning passage as this? The rest of the book just gets better, let me assure you. The story takes place in the wild woods of northern Rus’. Pyotr Vladimirovich, the boyar, and his family live happily in the woods. Pyotr has three healthy sons and a daughter. His wife, Marina, who has fey-like blood in her from her mother’s side, longs for another child who will have magic in her. Thus Vasya is born and Marina dies in childbirth. Soon Pyotr remarries Anna from Moscow because he feels the kids (especially Vasya) are running too wild because they are growing motherless. The family starts a new life not knowing the strange power stirring in the woods that can threaten their existence and claim Vasya for itself.

Needless to say, I adored this book. It was absolutely delightful in every page. It was the stunning cover that grabbed my attention first and the cover designed by David Grogan and Aitch was one of the Best book covers of 2017

A storyteller's paradise

In addition to the main storyline there are many stories in the book, some of them told over a crackling fire. I found this extremely charming and it took me back to the times when my grandfather used to tell stories.

Enchanting prose

Arden’s prose is delicious. The book is strewn with lyrical phrases; some examples are “The years slipped by like leaves,” ”air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow” and “the clouds lay like wet wool above trees.” Arden is a persuasive writer who not only captures the attention of the reader but transports the reader into Vasya’s world. I could feel even the flutter of a leaf in the woods and every splatter of snow as Vasya jumps onto it.

The heroine

Vasya is definitely a perfect heroine for me. She is not the clichéd ‘perfect beauty’ nor does she defy everything her elders say which is the easiest way to drive the plot forward in most fantasy reads. Vasya is a normal girl “too tall, skinny as a weasel, feet and face like a frog”. She learns to talk to horses, sees the creatures of the woods, hearths and lakes, befriends the magical beings but also remains an obedient child.

A family that sticks together

I loved the portrayal of family in the book. There are too many books with broken families and abusive parents in the new YA releases. Vasya has  wonderful siblings and a father who cares for them. The family sticks together to get through the harsh winter months. Not to forget the nurse, Dunya, who dotes on all the children

Book Review : The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Rich in myths

The book is rich in Slavic myths, something that I know very little about. But the world that Arden builds is so fascinating. There are domovai, vazila, upyr and rusulka (my favourite). The mythical threads hold you in a trance throughout the novel.

Themes

There is a tightly bound theme of a tug-of-war between the old and the new. The villagers are confused about their old ways of worship that protected them. The creatures of the woods and houses exist because of the belief that people have in them (much like every fantasy book; this specifically reminded me of Tinker Bell and Peter Pan). But when Christianity arrives on the lands; the new beliefs threaten the old ones, the whole balance of the woods is shaken up. The magical creatures are close to extinction because people begin to stop leaving them food thinking it is merely a superstitious act, Anna and Vasya are similar in the fact that they both can see the spirits but their decisions about the same are very different. There are thought provoking conversations between Vasya and Konstantin, the priest whom Anna appoints to ‘save the village.’

The not-so-good parts

The book has some loose ends that I am willing to overlook since this is Arden’s debut novel. Another thing that bothered me was that the ‘Bear’ and the ‘Nightingale’ do not appear till the very end of the book. So I am a little unsure if this was the best title for the book. The ending was not as good as the rest of the book because the inevitable battle that is part of every fantasy book did not interest me much. There is a precious jewel that is supposed to be very important to Vasya’s life. But we do not see much of it later on or understand why it was so important. Another teeny weeny problem I had was with the number of times ‘wood-sprite’ was used. It really bothered me and made me wonder why the author had not come up with another word for it.

Final Verdict :

This is a phenomenal book that is enchanting from the very first page. Highly recommended for those who love a good story.

Title : The Bear and the Nightingale
Author : Katherine Arden
Publisher : Del Rey Books
Published : 2017
Language : English
Pages : 336
Rating : 4.5/5

Let's discuss

Have you read The Bear and the Nightingale? Do you enjoy books on fairytales?

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The Bear and the Nightingale
This Post Has 40 Comments
  1. So glad to see you enjoyed The Bear and the Nightingale Resh! ughhhh when I think of it, I immediately want to crawl into my reading space with some hot cocoa. It also made me wish one too many times for a fireplace lol. Funny, I also felt that the ultimate battle scene was a bit anti-climactic but forgave it for the books overall goodness lol. I cannot wait for Girl in the Tower & although it sucks to have to wait, it’s being released in the perfect season (Winter) for the read. Wonderful review 😉

    1. Is that what the sequel is called? I am eager about it too but also very apprehensive whether the sequel would disappoint. Anyhow The Bear and the Nightingale was a wonderful read. I wish I could forget it and read and experience it again.

      1. Oh Gosh! Yes! I’ve legit said the same thing to my best friend, I wish I could read it again with newbie eyes lol. I have high hopes for Girl in the Tower & really hope it doesn’t disappoint us *fingers crossed* 😉

  2. I’ve heard so many great things about this book, I really want to read it. I was originally drawn by the cover, but I’ve heard so much about the prose and how beautiful it is, like you mentioned too. This was a lovely review. I’m glad you liked it so much 🙂

  3. That opening is so lovely, it’s making me want to pick up the book right now. Delicious prose and enchanting myths are my weakness. I didn’t realize this was a debut, so I’m doubly impressed by all the praise it’s been getting. Can’t wait to pick this one up. Thanks for the review!

    1. I think you will LOVE this book Alicia. It is so well written and there are a lot of magical creatures. If you can overlook some loose ends it is a fantastic book indeed.

  4. I am so looking forward to reading this! Russian and Ukrainian folk tales and mythology were a big part of my childhood, and sure this will bring back a lot of memories

      1. I’ve been waiting for your review ever since you said you’re reading it. Hoping to get my hands on this real soon

  5. I have to confess that I’m not a big lover of myths or fairy tales, so I probably wouldn’t gravitate towards something like this. It does sound very effective though. I’m glad you enjoyed it so much.

  6. I’m so glad you liked this one! I haven’t had the chance to read it but I’ve been meaning to for the longest time. All I hear about are the rich prose and phenomenal story-telling elements, steeped with folklore. I’ll have to really get the chance to pick it up!

  7. The fairytale take of this book is hwat has kept me away, but your wonderful review has me rethinking that???

  8. Such a beautiful review, thank you so much for sharing! The cover is absolutely stunning, I agree, I would want that on my shelf for sure…and after reading that first excerpt, I’m really, really curious about the rest of the story, it seems written so beautifully. And YES for family ties – there are too little of these in YA books, I agree.

    1. I am glad your curiosity to read the book is even more now. It was a wonderful book and I hope you get to pick it up soon. There were some loose ends that bothered me but overall it is a very strong debut.

  9. Beautiful review as per usual! I adore this version of the cover as much as I love the original cover with the cabin & the night sky. I am really kicking myself for not picking this one up yet, but I guarantee I will get to it in the upcoming months 🙂

  10. I can not wait to read this. Do you mind sharing a link to purchase this edition?
    I love buying physical books and love the bonus of a pretty book!

    1. Hey, I do not have affiliate links for purchase yet. Just search for the title with the publisher name on your online buying platform. This is a paperback copy from Del Rey.

  11. This sounds so achingly beautiful, not only the magical elements to the storyline but that lyricism. I love book infused with mythology and folklore and I’m so incredibly excited to grab a copy. That cover is absolutely divine as well. Absolutely brilliant review sweetheart < 3<3

    1. Thanks Kelly. I really enjoyed the book. The magic is brilliant and there are many beautiful phrases strewn around. It is a wonderful read especially on a cold night. I hope you will love it

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