The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Released Jan 10, 2017
Read April 6-17th, 2019
This book felt cold.
Overall I liked it, but it definitely took me some time to get into.
Because I’ve decided that giving synopses is not my strong point, here is the Goodreads Synopsis:
At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind–she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.
After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.
And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.
As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed–this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.
The Bear and the Nightingale feels cold. It takes place during winter, and reading it feels like you’re there, laying across the top of the oven with Vasilisa and her family while the snow blusters outside. Like you have found the one spot of warmness in a world of ice.
This book sets a very atmospheric tone, and I think that was my favorite part about it. The world was so rich and lush, and the creatures of Russian folklore were integrated in a way that felt natural. The writing was whimsical, and it felt like reading a fairy tale at times.
I also really liked the characters, whether I actually liked them or not. Each character was made the way they were for a reason, and even though some of them I grew to dislike, it made sense that they were there, and why they acted the way they did. Vasilisa, the main character, was my favorite. She was so headstrong and determined, and resisted the pulls of the local traditional values that would have limited her lot in life. At the same time, she acts this way, especially in the later part of the book, because she values her family. It’s a neat dynamic and I liked it.
The plot also is pretty neat – the slow introductions of organized religion into an area permeated by folklore and superstitious belief was interesting to read about, and seeing characters whose main belief systems on either side of the spectrum come to terms with those who believed the opposite was compelling. And while aspects of organized religion were shown in an unflattering way at times, the book never actually bashed the religion itself. I feel it was handled really well. Often when religion is essentially an antagonist in the story, the religion itself is portrayed as this thing that corrupts and those who believe it are silly. But not in this one. In this book, it’s shown that the people and their human error are the cause of misfortune. That their interpretations of what they believe to be right are the cause of strife, not the religious system itself. I found that really refreshing, and I really appreciated that it was portrayed that way.
So, the thing that kept me from loving this book was the pacing. For the first two hundred pages or so, the plot progression was really slow, and I had a hard time latching onto the story. Considering the book is just over 300 pages long, being lukewarm to it for the first two thirds isn’t great. After those 200 pages though, I finished it really quickly and really liked it.
Really other than the pacing, I had no complaints. This book was solidly good, and I’m glad I made the effort to get to a part where I could fall into the story more easily. The second book is out, and I feel like once my buying ban is over, it’ll be up there at the top of my list of books to get. Now that I know what to expect as far as pacing, I’m thinking I’ll like it even more.