Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden (The Bear and the Nightingale #1)

Genre: Fairytale, Fantasy, Historical Fiction

Publisher: Del Rey on January 10, 2017

Audio: Kathleen Gati for Audible Studios

Source: Purchased

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses.

  

Katherine Arden’s debut novel is a lush, lyrical, and haunting story inspired by Russian folklore. THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE is sure to be one of the most talked-about debuts of 2017, with its gorgeous writing, atmospheric setting, and captivating protagonist.

THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE tells the story of Vasilisa Petrovna, the young daughter of a northern Russian noble named Pytor Ivanovich and his magical and mysterious bride Marina. Before her death, Marina predicts that little Vasya will be just like her: gifted and powerful, as her mother was before her. A wild, stubborn, tender-hearted creature, Vasya seems to belong more to the forest than she does her father’s hearth. But while her family may ruefully shake their heads, Vasya is left to run free among the wild country…until the fateful day her father brings home a new bride, and with her the force of zealous Christianity.

Even with all their love for Vasya, there is little her older brothers and sister can do to protect her from the wrath of the imperious and pious Anna Ivanovna, their new stepmother. For although Vasya and Anna can both see creatures of legend and nature spirits where others cannot, the young girl is enchanted by them while her stepmother fears and loathes them as demons. Since Vasya cares for and is fascinated by the creatures, she too must be a demon. An unbiddable young girl from a magical lineage who cavorts with demons rarely fares well, and it isn’t long before her wildness earns Vasya the attention of Father Konstantin and his flock.

Father Konstantin, while hardly the first priest to take up residence in their village, is the first to try stamping out any beliefs in the old ways. The hearth and stable spirits? Offer them no bread or honey wine, lest you be damned. The rusalka and upyr? They are merely fairytales meant to frighten children, and good Christians should fear only God. Slowly, everyone in the village falls under Konstantin’s thrall until only Vasya honours the old ways. But with an otherworldly battle looming, can one girl’s attempts to keep the spirits alive serve to protect an entire village from catastrophe? If any one person can do so, it’s Vasya – a young woman whose compassion is outmatched only by her tenacity.

The world of Arden’s Russia is a harsh, cold place where even nobles run the risk of starving during a lean winter. Yet there remains a stark beauty to the place, and I found myself almost hearing the whistle of wind through bare tree branches and the hush after a heavy snowfall as I read on. The evocative writing and heady atmosphere captured my attention from the first scene and never once let up, but be forewarned: while Arden’s craft may leave you breathless, the pace of the plot surely will not. THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE is a leisurely story, almost plodding at times, which may frustrate some readers. But this is a book meant to be savoured over long, wintry nights with a cup of something to warm you up, and it absolutely satisfied me.

Vasya’s earnestness, her love for the world around her, and her fierce protective instincts captured my heart and I cannot wait to read more about her adventures in the sequel! I will most certainly be buying a copy of it on audio, as narrator Kathleen Gati does an exceptional job with THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE. Gati is a pro with accents and pronouncing Russian names, which helped immerse me in the story from the get-go and saved me from stumbling over unfamiliar terms. She gives a lilting, slow performance of the text that perfectly reflects the pace and tone of THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE, and I highly recommend the audiobook.

Have you read THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE? What impressive debut novels have you read this year? Let me know in the comments!

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  • Omg I am sooooooooooooo curious about this one, I have for ages but I never do anything about it

    • It was SO good! I highly recommend doing something to satisfy your curiosity ASAP. 😉

  • Sam Kozbial

    I need to read this one. It’s been on my TBR, but since I don’t have the book, it’s not been prioritized. I will have to see if my library has the physical book, since I know they don’t have the ebook. Great review!
    Sam @ WLABB

    • You do need to read it, Sam! Haha. Definitely one of my favourites of the year, and one of the only audiobooks I’ve listened to. Fingers crossed that your library has a copy! Thank you! 🙂

  • I’m glad to hear you loved this one, Danya. As I was reading it totally reminded me of you because I know you love your lush fantasies. I did struggle a bit with the pacing aspects of the story, but the writing was so gorgeous! It was forgivable. 🙂 I hear there are more books in the story! I hope they will be just as good.

    • It was sooooo freaking good, Nick! Hahaha that’s great to hear – you clearly have my reading tastes on lock, but I’m not surprised since you’re the rec queen. 😉 Can you believe this is Arden’s first book? She’s crazy talented! Fingers crossed that book two will be just as awesome; I saw the cover and synopsis earlier this week and both look killer!

  • Ooh, this sounds like it has a really cool atmosphere to it. Probably not my jam because I suck at paying attention to slower paced stories, but maybe I’ll give it a shot some time!

    • Yeah, it was so atmospheric! Very bleak and cold but warm somehow, too? Knowing your tastes this probably isn’t a great pick for you, but I bet you’d love other fantasy stories set in Russia!

  • I have not read this yet but I have a copy! That’s half the battle, right? So glad to read your enthusiastic review, and I’ll be reading this sometime this year for sure:-)

    • Half the battle is finished, now it’s time to wage the rest! Haha. I cannot wait to hear your take on this one Tammy – I thought it was absolutely gorgeous. 🙂

  • MaddalenaSpaceandSorcery

    Great review! I’ve had this title on my list of “possibles” for some time now, and the main drive to read it came from the unusual setting: when you say that the author’s writing is ‘evocative’, that’s all the incentive I need to pick this up as soon as I can – even if it will require some patience because of the pace… 🙂

    • Thanks Maddalena! Writing reviews for my favourite reads can be tough sometimes, but this one came easily because there was so much to say! Arden’s writing is nothing if not evocative, so I think you’re really going to like this one. Pick up a warm drink and something chocolatey, grab this book, and you’re set for a leisurely evening! 🙂

  • I’ve been wanting to read this for ages but just haven’t been quite in the mood for it. I just saw the cover for the second book (I had no idea it was going to be a series!) and it’s so gorgeous. Clearly need to make time for this. Great review. 🙂

    • Ooooh, I think you’d really enjoy this one! Although I do think it’s probably best read in cooler weather, since it makes the story’s atmosphere that much more wintery. I didn’t realize it was going to be a series either, but this is one of the few times I’m not somewhat annoyed by that, haha. Thanks, Bonnie! 🙂

  • Yaaasss! I’m so happy to read this review! This is one of my anticipated reads this year and I just haven’t managed to get to it yet! And between the alternating hype and bad reviews I got scared.

    Now that I’ve read your review however I am more excited than anything else and since we ARE going into winter here I think it will be perfect to pick this up when I can spend nights with it in front of a fire!

    Thank you for the wonderful review!

    • Ahh yes, the inevitable wave of 5 star reviews and flurry of bad ones that always accompany a hyped book. They scare me away too, sometimes. But in this case I think as long as you know what you’re getting, you’ll love it. Plus it sounds like the perfect time of year for you to pick this one up…and reading it in front of a fire would be amazing!

      Aww, thanks Di! You know I love writing reviews. 🙂

  • This was one of my first contenders for my best of 2017 list – I just loved it! As with most debuts it wasn’t perfect, but I loved the atmosphere and the gorrrrgeous writing. I’m glad to see you enjoyed the book too!

    • Me too! I think this is going to be on my “best of 2017” list too, possibly under the audio category. The pacing could’ve used some work but honestly, the writing was so beautiful that I barely even noticed. Arden is one to watch for sure, and I’m excited to see where she takes Vasya in the sequel!

  • Greg Hill

    I like the premise of this one, the tug and pull of the old ways vs Christianity is always a topic I find interesting. And a Russian setting? Nice. I’ve seen this one around but wasn’t really sure what it was about, and now I have a better idea. Definitely sounds good, and I’ll keep the slow pace in mind if I read it- sometimes I don’t mind a more leisurely pace if it’s the right book. 🙂

    • I agree, I love stories that grapple with the tension between “old ways” and “new ways” of thinking and believing. The Russian setting was awesome! I think the last book I read that was set in Russia was assigned reading in undergrad, haha. Couldn’t agree more about leisurely stories: if the pace matches well with the story being told, I don’t mind at all. 🙂

  • I have read it and was impressed. I have had a great run of debuts this year; Amberlough, Kings of the Wyld, and the forthcoming The Prey of Gods.

    • I actually couldn’t believe that this was a debut at first! Arden is a very assured writer, I think. Amberlough and Kings of the Wyld are both on my TBR!

  • I’m glad you enjoyed this, too! It reminded me a lot of Juliet Marillier’s style, so of course I loved it. I was surprised and a little disappointed when I realized it’s not a standalone, but I’m looking forward to more. 🙂

    • I loved it! Yeah, I was definitely getting Marillier vibes from this one too; there’s something about the whole “magic of everyday life” thing that always reminds me of her books. The sequel took me by surprise as well, but I’m stoked to read more about Vasya and her siblings!

  • Oh man, I’ve heard a lot of great things about this book and I do love magnificent retelling! You make me want to bundle up on a rainy day and read it! Glad it was such an awesome listen! Fantastic review, Danya!

    • This would be such a good rainy day read, Cyn! Cuddle up with a warm drink and you’ve got yourself the perfect setting for reading this story. I definitely recommend the audio version too, if you’re into audiobooks. Thanks! 🙂

  • I’ve heard a LOT about this book but haven’t read it yet! And Russian settings are wonderful to read about 🙂 I keep hearing how haunting the writing is and that’s what excited me the most about reading this book <333

    • It’s been one of the most buzzed-about books of 2017 – at least on the blogs I follow – so I’m glad to have finally read (and loved) it. I need to pick up more books set in Russia because I’ve hardly read any! Arden’s writing is gorgeous, definitely recommended for when you want something beautifully written.

  • I may check out the audio book I been trying to listen to more books,and I struggle hard with slow moving books! Great Review! Tori @ In Tori Lex

    • Hooray! I thought the audiobook was really well done, although it certainly doesn’t make the story move any faster (the narrator goes at a very slow pace). Thanks, Tori! 🙂

  • Karen

    Hmmm not sure if this is for me but I have heard great things.

    For What It’s Worth

    • It’s definitely not a book for everyone what with the slow pace, but Katherine Arden is certainly one to watch!

  • You read it! Or at least, listened to it which is the same thing. I was nervous to see what you would think because it is so slow and I know that can be offputting so I’m so glad you enjoyed it. This book is one of those perfect winter reads. Preferably a winter read when you’re on holiday and it’s snowing outside and you have nothing better to do because until you get to the halfway point, if not farther, you will be struggling. I loved the exploration of russian history (even if liberties were taken on accuracy) and of russian folklore because it’s so harsh but also so cool and interesting. I am pretty excited to see where the next book is going to go even though I didn’t know it was a series when I read it (I hate when that happens, sneaking up on you roping you into something you didn’t know you were committing to).

    • I did! It took me AGES to finish the audiobook but it was sooo worth it; honestly, I didn’t mind the slower parts at all and even liked them some of the time. I managed to squeeze this in during March/April, which is still snowy here so the story felt extra wintery. Definitely the best time of year to read this one! I may have had a few boozy hot chocolates while listening. 😉

      The Russian history and folklore were so interesting, weren’t they? Clearly I need to read more stories set there, because I loved it. The harshness of the environment juxtaposed with the warmth of the relationship between Vasya and her siblings was just wonderful. I know some people were annoyed by the announcement of the sequel, but personally I’m super excited about it! Vasya’s adventures are going to be absolutely epic.

  • Lynn Williams

    I loved this and think your review is spot on. Definitely not a book to rush and so evocative. Bring on No.2
    Lynn 😀

    • Does this mean we’re back in synch with our reading? LOL. But seriously, I loved this story and I’m really excited to read the sequel!

      • Lynn Williams

        Yep – we’re back in sync – just going to check out your White Hot review and see if I need to dash out and buy a copy immediately!

  • I’ve heard of this book and I’ve seen so many wonderful reviews for it. I’m partially mad at myself for turning down the review opportunity! But at the same time, I told myself that I would binge-read the series once it is published in its entirety. I’m so glad you enjoyed this book, Danya!

    Have a fabulous week. =)

    Alyssa @ The Eater of Books!

    • Don’t feel too bad Alyssa; I think binge-reading the series is a perfect idea! Vasya and her siblings are absolutely wonderful, I hope you love them and their stories when you get a chance to read them. Thanks girl, you too! 🙂

  • Oooh, I’m so happy you enjoyed The Bear and the Nightingale!! It’s one of my favorites and I must try the audio now. Gorgeous review, Danya. 🙂

    • I loved it so much! Highly recommend the audio for any re-reading you might be doing, because I think this story is meant to be read aloud. Thanks so much, Kim! 🙂

  • Wait there’s a sequel? When did that happen!?!? I love that it’s inspired by Russian folklore — that is not something I can say I see often enough 😉

    • I know!!! Pretty recently, I think…but I’m not complaining! Based on how well it worked in this one, we need more Russian folklore in fantasy. I adored the setting and the magic!

  • I think this one will work very well for me and it’s good to know that it is one to pick up when I’m in the mood for something a little quiet and slow paced. I also appreciate the rec of the audio! I think that may be how I consume this one.