Recently, I read The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden for a book club. It’s a fantastical and imaginative fairytale retelling….which is definitely my cup of tea. Though, I might not have picked out this book for myself. Most of that probably has something to do with a summer reading assignment of Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment while in high school.
Seriously, assigning Crime & Punishment to a teenager during a summer holiday is both a crime and punishment. Since then, any literature taking place in Russia came with an automatic trigger warning.
The Bear and the Nightingale is a historical fantasy set during medieval Russia and follows the family of a Russian lord in a small village north of Moscow, but it focuses mostly on the lord’s younger daughter, Vasya.
While I didn’t obsess over this book as I do my five-star reads, I surprised myself by enjoying it more than I anticipated. It kept popping up in my thoughts whenever I put the book down, and it kept me entertained the entire way through.
So here’s what I really liked…
The man, the myth, the legend(s)
Russian folklore is heavily incorporated into this novel. And I loved every bit of it. Not being extremely familiar with the stories and legends myself, I felt that Arden did an excellent job informing the audience without it feeling like she watered it down or had to spell it out.
My favorite piece of folklore in the story is Morozko. He is essentially winter embodied, Russian Jack Frost, and often called a demon…so pretty cool overall. What I loved most about this fable/character is that he is first introduced through a story being told by fireside, and then comes into form as this well-establish anti-hero, plus he has the world’s coolest animal sidekick.
The novel also includes a lot of different creatures, including mythical forest-dwelling beings, household spirits, and a few things that go bump in the night. The creatures were the main source of fantasy in the story, and I thought Arden did a good job of allowing the reader to connect with them.
Females fighting for freedom
Because the novel is written in 3rd person omniscient, you get a little taste inside many of the character’s heads. But the clear protagonist of this story is Vasya.
Ever since her birth, Vasya has always been different. In a society where a woman’s role is to either serve her husband or to serve god, Vasya dreams of freedom from either option.
Any time a novel has a female protagonist that is strong-willed and independent, it immediately earns extra points. The theme of either succumbing to or rejecting societal expectations is largely expressed in this book. Arden threaded this theme through the plot in a way that had me rooting for the main character, while also being thankful I was born in the 21st century.
In addition to what I have already shared, here’s a quick list of what else this book had that I enjoyed:
- Well established relationships
- Morally grey characters and antagonists
- Beautifully articulated scenery (plenty of frigid winter vibes)
- Rich storytelling
- And engaging look at a culture I’m not as familiar with
Why was this not a five-star read?
First off, I didn’t know this was the first book of a trilogy until after finishing the book. That being said, I didn’t have much enthusiasm for continuing the series. That to me is telling enough.
While there were many things that I did enjoy, I felt that, at times, the prose lacked focus. Perhaps we hopped into one too many heads.
I also found myself enjoying the story much more after the protagonist reached late adolescence, so there is quite a bit of set-up that has to be navigated through. Conversely, while it felt as though the book took its time to get started, the ending that it built to felt rushed.
The Bear and the Nightingale surprised me in many ways. I recommend this book to anyone interested in historical fantasy or fairytale retellings, and especially if you are interested in medieval Russia. It is not a challenging read, but I definitely feel like I came out of it feeling as though I had learned something academic.
This is my firs book review on the blog, and I’m hoping to do them on a monthly basis. Please like/comment if you found this post enjoyable or informative. Let me know if there is any content you would like to see in the future!