The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden– a Russian Fairytale that Leaves You Breathless
5th July, 2017
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.
“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.
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.
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
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.
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
Have you read The Bear and the Nightingale? Do you enjoy books on fairytales?