The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Goodreads Rating: 4 stars
Actual Rating: 4.5 stars
I received an advanced copy of The Bear and the Nightingale from Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.
The Bear and the Nightingale is based in Russia during the Rise of Christianity, but still full of the ‘old ways.’ This story is based in a small northern Russian village that still holds the old ways of paying tribute for protection to these deities. They leave tiny offerings to the small ‘demons’ (as they are referred to in story) such as bread, honeymead, and in some cases, blood. This story is rich in Russian folklore and it is obvious that the author has done her research. The main character in the story is Vasya, who was the last born of the village leader’s wife, Marina. Marina’s family has unique origins and many people refer to them as a witch. Vasya can see the tiny gods and makes friends with many. Marina dies after giving birth to Vasya, whom she knows is going to do great things and have the gifts of her family. When Vasya is young, her father sets to Moscow to obtain a wife for himself and a husband for his eldest daughter. He marries the Grand Prince’s daughter, Anna, who also has the sight. She is of the same blood line of Vasya. Whenever Anna sees the gods, she refers to them as demons and freaks out. She is often referred to as “mad.” On the way back to the tiny village, a mysterious stranger provides Vasya’s father with a necklace and instructs him to give it to Vasya and to keep by her always. The father provides this trinket with Dunya, the caregiver/nanny, and she decides to hold it until Vasya is much older. At a point in time later, a priest from Moscow is sent to this village once the village priest dies. He is set to “fix” the village and scare them with the love of God. They begin to stop providing offerings to these deities which causes them to slowly grow weaker. Ultimately, this leads to incidents that cause Vasya to go into the forest. She is chased by The Bear, a little one eyed being she has seen approximately 4 times in her life. Just when she thinks the Bear will get her, the mysterious stranger steps in to rescue her. This stranger is actually the frost demon. She resides with him for a period of time to grow stronger, and eventually goes back to her home village to try and save the village from destruction brought on by this priest.
This story is very beautifully written. The story flows well together and is interesting throughout the story. The events leading to the climax is that of a slow burn resulting in a big boom at the end. I fell in love with Vasya. I wished there was more to the story about the Frost Demon and his purpose for Vasya, it was only mildly hinted at during her stay in his realm. I have learned that there are 3 books in this story so it is my hope that the Frost Demon appears and this development can go further. My main issue with the book is that there were a lot of words that I didn’t understand. At the end, I saw a dictionary, however, on a Kindle, I didn’t know until the end. I also felt some adjectives used were overused and I felt like I was constantly seeing them. There were also many names used for one character and that was often confusing. There were words that, even at me being almost 32, I had no clue what they meant and had never seen them before. All of this can be harmful to a reader. I felt very confused in many instances. As someone who does not know much about Russian Folklore, I had to tap on the words in the story for a wiki snippet, and in many cases there were none found. I feel like, for those readers who do not know Russian Folklore, this would have been an excellent opportunity to influence a reader that is unfamiliar to want to know more. After reading a Q& A on Goodreads for this book with the author, I am more intrigued. It would have been nice to have that translated, or at least more clear, in this story. As the series continues, I believe some of these ideas will become more apparent.
As I said above, this story is beautifully written. I like the character development, not only of Vasya, but of all of the characters. They are each a unique part to this story. The character sketch for each are pretty spot on. You cannot truly have had this story without any of these characters. I appreciate Vasya in so many ways it is ridiculous. I always complain about weak main female characters, and Vasya is not that. She is strong, she is independent, she is smart. Everyone turns against her, and she does not falter. At times, she shows her vulnerability, and she shows her strength. She is an ideal lead female character in a story. Vasya is strong willed, and “wild”, and outside the norm of females in that time period. I think it translates well to young females today. I like that Vasya is not a damsel in distress. She does not need or want to be saved, and she makes that very known in the story. She is a female that will love when she finds someone she wants to love. Not someone she is forced to be with. She specifically told the frost demon that she was going to be forced to marry and be her “husband’s mare”, or someone specifically for baby making purposes, and that she did not want that. It doesn’t say she doesn’t want to be married or have kids, but it hints that she will choose that only when she wants to, if at all. That was brilliant.
Finally, I do recommend this book. I am intrigued with knowing more about Russian folklore and hopefully I can learn some more so I am not totally confused in the future 🙂 I would recommend this book in physical form over Kindle format, especially for the use of the dictionary. My 4 star Goodreads Rating may have been a 5 star rating had I had some of the readily available to look. I will purchase the physical copy once it is released so that I can have the set as a whole once it is finished. The dictionary aspect will be very helpful and a lot less confusing.