The Bear and the Nightingale is a masterful fantasy tale set in a pre-industrial Russia, filled with magic and the spirits of old religion. Beyond the story of a young girl coming to terms with her abilities and her heritage, it’s a tale of societal culture clash as institutionalized religion tries to overrule the ancient religions that have long governed the land. Arden’s writing style somehow makes every word magical, leaving you with the sensation that you’ve read something important that’s both make-believe and very real.
It’s a great time to catch up on the Winternight Trilogy in preparation for the third book, The Winter of the Witch, scheduled for release on January 8, 2019. This series is not to be missed!
NOTE: I was provided a free copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest, unbiased review. I only publish reviews of books I enjoy, and this novel meets that criterion.
A Few of My Favorite Things
A good bildungsroman gives us an unsure, stumbling character and sets them on a path of enlightenment through a number of obstacles. A great bildungsroman is gradual, slowly introducing us to a character we begin to care about, one who isn’t understood by those around her and makes her own way. Vasya’s magical abilities make The Bear and the Nightingale that much more powerful, giving her a leg up on those who stand as obstacles to her. She won’t be brought down by a father who doesn’t believe women should be allowed to choose their futures. She won’t be stopped by a stepmother who hates everything about her. She won’t be repressed by a priest who wants to exorcise everything interesting out of her. And she definitely won’t be hidden away to a husband who can’t even be nice to his horse. She’s powerful beyond measure, a true hero who commands the respect and admiration of readers.
The magic of The Bear and the Nightingale is fascinating. Creatures, spirits, and demons are around every corner, hiding in the trees and the lakes, invisible to everyone but Vasya. These beings are included within the local religious belief system, receiving offerings from townspeople for protection. That widespread belief makes everything seem so real. I didn’t feel like I was reading a fairy tale, but a story of a world I wanted to believe in. Good vs evil is a heavy theme within the latter half of the book, showing us the true colors of these magical beings and their intentions within the world. Through it all, Vasya continues to grow more powerful in her abilities and her beliefs, becoming a true adversary to the magical enemies of her people. This point alone is enough to propel me into devouring two more books in the series.
Historical Russia is mixed in with the fantasy elements, showing us what it might have been like to live in the Russian wilderness, surrounded by unforgiving woods and harsh winters. Arden uses Vasya’s family dynamics to illustrate the harsh realities for young women during that time, and the restrictions thrust upon them by society. We see the freedom her brothers have to follow their own paths, and ignorance of her father and her horrible stepmother to allow her to find her own way. It’s a society obsessed with power and financial freedom, one she has no desire to be a part of.
Arden does a great job with the fear aspect of the primary villain. It starts as a whisper on the wind, quite literally, and slowly builds around Vasya and her family. Little things start to change, people become afraid, and it takes a long while for the villain to be revealed. You’re left in this state of semi-suspense throughout most of the book, enjoying the journey but wary of the bad times you know are up ahead. I admire Arden’s ability to make readers feel something so subtle, yet continuous.
The Bear and the Nightingale
By Katherine Arden
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