The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Published January 10, 2017
There’s a kind of magic to The Bear and the Nightingale , a medieval Russian folktale/fairytale about the winter king and a brave and wild maiden. Some books have a seasonal feel to them, and this tale is a fabulous winter read which made me want to curl up under a soft blanket with a mug of hot tea and watch snow fall outside, secure in the knowledge that there’s nowhere I need to go. We’re into Spring now, so it’s been a little less enchanting Rus’ winter and a little more grey and gloomy rain where I am, but either way The Bear and the Nightingale is just the book to provide an enchanting escape from the elements.
I was immediately hooked by the lyrical prose, and delighted by the imagery that so richly recreates the world of medieval Russia. It’s a style of writing that appeals to the senses, and you can almost feel the residual warmth of the giant oven on which the family sleeps and the cold foreboding of the nearby woods as winter approaches. As someone who enjoys folktales and mythology, I was also very taken with the way in which Arden brings the spirits, from the meek domovoi and the steady vazila to the more mercurial rusalka, to life, and I thought the battle between the old world belief in these spirits and the strict Christian ideology was rendered well.
Vasilisa (known as Vasya) is a new favourite character of mine. She’s introduced as a child, and even as a girl is singular among her family because she can see the household spirits and other creatures and interact with them. Free-spirited and bold, Vanya is also kind, trying to help those around her and obviously caring deeply for her family and her siblings. In what must be any girl who had a horse phase’s dream, she’s kind to the stable spirit and horses her family owns, and in return she learns to speak the language of the horses and they teach her to ride. As a young woman she is striking and direct, but this quality means that she is viewed with suspicion and called a witch by the townspeople. Often she is caught between doing what is expected of her as a woman and doing what she knows to be right, such as taking care of the spirits through sneaking them bread and drink so they can aid her against the impending darkness.
Most of the other characters are also engaging, from Konstantin the priest to Vanya’s father Pyotr who I believe does the best he can with the knowledge available to him. Vanya’s brothers Sasha, the warrior priest and the other sibling to have inherited some of their fiery mother Marina’s temperament and abilities, and Alyosha, who looks out for Vanya and believes her when no one else will, are characters I cared deeply about and would be happy to read more about in future volumes in this series. I also liked that although Vanya is bold and independent, this doesn’t mean that her more domestic sisters, Olga and Irina, are any less valid women. Their desires to find a husband and have children are not treated with any derision by Vanya or by the author, nor is Vanya’s choice not to take the traditional path of marriage or joining a convent.
My one criticism of this book is that I wish Anna Ivanovna had been given more depth as a character. When we initially meet her, she’s a pious woman who wishes to join a convent to escape the “devils” (spirits) she sees everywhere except in church. Here we pity Anna as she is married off against her will and taken to the wild North, where the spirits are stronger and more widely accepted, but after Anna’s settled in the town, her perspective is rarely used again and we see her primarily through the eyes of her husband, the priest Konstantin who views her as a weak annoyance, and Vanya. Anna is therefore relegated to an evil stepmother role and any compassion we may have had for her initially vanishes because we only see her actions through the eyes of others and don’t get her inner thoughts. Contrast this with Konstantin, who makes choices the reader cannot agree with based on our greater knowledge that the spirits are real and of the impending danger Vanya faces, but we get Konstantin’s perspective, his doubt, and his belief that he is doing the right thing. It makes for a much more complex and engaging character.
In some ways The Bear and the Nightingale is what I had hoped Uprooted would be. I was ultimately underwhelmed by Novik’s Uprooted when I read it last year, partly because it didn’t provide enough of a twist on the fairy tale staples for me and partly because I didn’t connect very strongly with the characters. Arden uses many of the same classic folktale elements, like the chosen wild and brave maiden, the vaguely threatening powerful man who has a claim to her, and the sometimes foreboding local wood, but I found the world more richly drawn, and I was much more attached to likable and active protagonist Vanya and to the supporting cast of characters than I was to Agnieszka, a more passive heroine.
I eagerly await the sequel to The Bear and the Nightingale (where it looks like we’ll get more of Sasha and Olga, as well, of course, as Vanya) and would highly recommend this gorgeous tale to everyone.