The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden (3 stars)
Kel Sunday, January 08, 2017 reviewI'm a sucker for fairy tales, and after loving Uprooted, an adult fantasy inspired by Eastern European lore, I was psyched to try this. Historical fantasy filled with Russian lore? Count me in!
This eARC was provided through NetGalley for review. Some things may have changed in the final version.
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Series: [Untitled Series] #1
Genres: Fantasy, Historical
Published on January 10, 2017
Published by Del Rey
Final Rating: 3 stars
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 is a lovely winter's tale of magic and madness.
Vasya is known as the strange girl in her village. She spends hours in the woods and talks to household spirits. She climbs trees, stays out until dark and is generally a little mischievous imp from childhood through her young adult years. Needless to say, this causes conflict with her family, her village and the new village priest. But her eccentricities could be the only thing that saves them.
The characters and story reminded me of Robin McKinley's work, in particular The Hero and the Crown. There's a good mix of family relationships (both good and bad) and customs that felt period-accurate. The story structure reminded me a lot of McKinley's Spindle's End. It starts focusing on one set of people, then grows with the main protagonist, Vasya, as she slowly takes over the story. Some readers may find the beginning a little slow. The author spends a lot of time building up the world, the characters and their relationships. The main "baddie" doesn't play a large role until later in the book. I enjoyed it though. I enjoyed the characters and their interactions and all the little (and big) conflicts along the way.
I also thought it was really interesting how the author tied in the religious elements of the area/era. I'm glad she didn't take the easy route of totally tossing the church/God under the bus and made it pretty clear the problem here was a man out for power and himself. The resulting complexities added to the story.
Unfortunately, I found the ending a little anticlimactic. It builds and builds and then...it's over. I guess I was a little blindsided by the solution and it had a slight tinge of deus ex machina. It wasn't too easy, exactly, but it was easier than I expected and kind of appeared out of nowhere.
On the whole, I enjoyed The Bear and the Nightingale. I liked Vasya and her family and the way the author weaved in belief and magic and Russia. I highly recommend this for fans of Naomi Novik's Uprooted looking for their next fairy tale fix.