Review: The Bear and the Nightingale (Winternight Trilogy #1) by Katherine Arden


A magical debut novel for readers of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and Neil Gaiman’s myth-rich fantasies, The Bear and the Nightingale spins an irresistible spell as it announces the arrival of a singular talent with a gorgeous voice.

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.

RATING: ☆★☆★

There’s a weirdly intense spot in my heart occupied by so much love and appreciation for lushly written magical tales imbued with the feel of centuries-old fairy tales. There’s just something extremely entrancing about this breed of fantasy that delves deep into the origins of storytelling and employs the stone foundation of fairytales to tell a story that is at once comforting and familiar as well as subversive, vibrant and new.

Arden’s The Bear and The Nightingale shares the same DNA as Naomi Novik’s marvelously brilliant Uprooted, and Spinning Silver: the three tales all center on young women who are stronger than they know and their monster-later-turned-ally who aren’t as monstrous as everyone think they are. It’s a premise that appeals to me so much, which is why this book worked so well for me.

So, what’s this book about?

The people of a village in northern Russia have lived with the certainty that demons move through their world like they move through their words, disasters beyond its boundaries, and Vasilisa Petrovna—youngest child of a wealthy boyar and heir to ancient magic—has lived with the burden of it. Vasilisa can see spirits, the creatures of hearth, lake, stable and woods who protect her town and its people, and she kept this truth like a bird that she was worried of frightening away—until her father brings home a new bride who fears the wood spirits she can also see and forbids Vasya any communion with them.

Not long after, a young, arrogant priest is sent to her village, ready to prod and stoke the rumors about demons, using it as his most powerful weapon because it is the villagers’ most potent fear, until they turn away from their old ways. When the people fail to pay the tithe that kept the spirits from fading, the crops wither away and the wolves creep close to the village and when Vasya’s many attempts to keep the old magical protections in place fall through, the townspeople all sought to repair the fault in the world by demanding to put her out of it.

But the worst nightmare they could hope to conjure for Vasya would pale beside the one that already lived in the woods—blasted, hungry and more terrible than the Winter King himself—and that wanted Vasya and all she holds dear.

The Bear and the Nightingale is a very atmospheric, sprawling yet so deftly-crafted fairy tale that ticks all my reading boxes: witchcraft, magic, and history. It’s a gorgeous novel, grounded in Russian folklore but richly overlaid with an immersive, creative story of its own, and rendered in languorous and sensuous prose. The characters are ice and fire; they bite and fight and delight all at once. The plot moves with a slow grace, gradually building a world encroached by darkness and creeping inch by dreadful inch towards a freshly hideous future—unless the stalwart heroine, whose fate seems sealed to a provincial life but is suddenly uprooted, saves it.

The author pours just enough nuance into each character to make them feel real in the moment, breaking them out of the trope mold and shaping them into something entirely unique. And it’s that delicate touch that keeps the novel from becoming relentlessly bleak. Vasya holds the spirit of a girl backed up to the world’s edge, ready to spread her arms like wings and fly or fall. She’s always refused to go along, to make herself small enough to slip past a looming danger, to stay quiet and unobtrusive; she no sooner thought a thing than said it, or wanted a thing than she tried to get it. Her fierce determination kindles. It’s always there, always smoldering, and it doesn’t take much to set it alight. I love how insatiable she was in her thirst for the extraordinary, how she didn’t settle for the mediocre and how her journey was about growing and becoming a more magnified, specific version of herself. The Winter King was an interesting character as well—he and Vasya are so tangled in my mind, all blood and vengeance and strife, and I rooted for them.

“All my life,” she said, “I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.”

Moreover, I liked how this book captures the richness of relationships among family and friends, explores human and alien social structures, fathers and daughters, damaged relationships and hidden agendas and wrings out many lessons from unexpected consequences. It’s also refreshing to find a book where characters don’t fall in immediate, all-consuming, passionately forbidden love; each character by itself was a brittle, sharp-edged fragment, and they didn’t seek to palliate or soften their jagged edges to make a whole—and I like it that way.

Overall, The Bear and The Nightingale is a gorgeous medieval fable that blossoms into a thoughtful, emotionally complex tale. Every night, I told myself I would just read a few more pages, and every night I would blow right past that because I simply couldn’t put it down. Highly recommended!

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