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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