Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

bear-nightingale

Favourite quotes:

“We who live forever can know no courage, nor do we love enough to give our lives”.

“All my life, 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”.

“They smelled the city long before they saw it, hazed as it was with the smoke of ten thousand fires, and then the brilliant domes – green and scarlet and cobalt – showed dimly through the vapor. At last they saw the city itself, lusty and squalid, like a far woman with feet caked and filth. The high golden towers rose proudly above the desperate poor, and the gold-fretted icons watched, inscrutable, while princes and farmers’ wives came to kiss their stiff faces and pray”.

 

Vasilisa, or Vasya, loves a good story, a good fairytale. Especially those her nurse Dunya tells her and her brothers on a cold winter night – which is almost every night if one lives at the edge of Russian wilderness, beyond the Arctic Circle. Her favourite is that of Morozko (Frost) – a winter demon that claims the souls of the unworthy and rewards those who display courage in the face of the lethal cold. She loves fairytales and stories because she knows them to be real. The spirits that inhibits them are real – Vasya has seen them. Others in her household might not see them, but they honour them nonetheless, despite Christianity rapidly taking over and replacing the pagan beliefs in the old gods.

Soon, however, Vasya’s harmless stories and games aren’t so harmless anymore. Some years after her mother – daughter of a vedma (witch) dies, her father goes to Moscow to introduce her brothers to the Tsar and to find himself another wife. Vasya’s new stepmother is Anna, and she sees what Vasya sees. But she is afraid. She sees the household spirits as demons, devils. Throwing herself completely into Christianity, Anna and the new priest Konstantin, sent by the Tsar to Vasya’s village, forbid the people from worshipping the old gods, honouring the old ways. Vasya is the only one who sees, who understands the disasters that are arising as a result. The weather becomes worse, the crops fail, the wolves come closer and closer to the village, and Vasya is powerless to stop it. Or is she?

Can Vasya – a fourteen-year-old maiden now – defy her stepmother and make sure that the people remember the old ways and save them? Or will Anna and Konstantin send her to convent before she manages to do anything? And what if Frost isn’t real after all and Anna’s demand for snowdrops in midwinter make Vasya freeze to death – a fate fitting for a vedma?

 

Most of you know that I have Russian family and am fluent in the language. This is why I have such ambivalent attitude towards books based on Russian culture written by non-Russian authors. Some of those authors, like Catherynne Valente, get it so right that my heart weeps with nostalgia for childhood. Others, like Leigh Bardugo in the Grisha Trilogy, are talented in their own way, but fail to grasp the nuances of the culture and the history. Thus I was apprehensive when I picked up “The Bear and the Nightingale”.

I needn’t have been.

I’ve previously made dessert analogies in relation to reading books, and I must say that reading “The Bear and the Nightingale” was like eating a massive, decadent yet light and smooth, chocolate mousse. There were a lot of things packed in this page-turner, but they flowed so incredibly well that it was impossible to be overwhelved. And the writing was absolutely stunning.

The book strikes a perfect balance – just enough flowery prose, just enough descriptions and metaphors, and just enough references to history to satisfy the reader without overindulging them. And for me, it was a double treat – what with my Russian heritage and all! Although I should say – some of you might find a few “nuts” in the decadent “mousse” that is “The Bear and the Nightingale”. These “nuts” are Russian words that appear quite often throughout the text. Fortunately, there is a very helpful guide at the end of the book to help you figure out what the words mean.

I’m biased, as a Russian speaker, but I never get tired of seeing foreign words in an English text – especially those that fit! Some books, like “Black Widow” by M. Stohl were 90% hit, 10% obvious miss with the Russian vocabulary. “The Bear and the Nightingale” was a 100% hit. In fact, I’m not convinced that the book wasn’t originally written in Russian! It just flows so incredibly smoothly – I “translated” a little in my head and could see how well the grammar structures and sentences worked in both Russian and English narration. Miss Arden, I thus nominate thee an Honorary Russian! Although with the author’s background, it’s not surprising that she’s managed to craft such a beautiful, such a Russian masterpiece.

The book might technically be “fantasy” but it is also a terrific study of a little-known period of Russian history – post-Mongol invasion, pre-Peter the Great. It takes place a few years after the introduction of Orthodox Christianity to Russia (or Rus’, as it was known back then), and makes history and religion both important plot points and significant details of the overall atmosphere of the novel. And one thing “The Bear and the Nightingale” certainly doesn’t lack is atmosphere! I believe that one would enjoy reading this on a cold winter day/evening, curled up in a comfortable chair, under a warm blanket – that’s what I did. Best weekend in a while! I can’t really imagine rushing through a book like this one when you’re on a train, for example. No, these kinds of book demand being invested in them – both in terms of time and emotion. “The Bear and the Nightingale” is tricky to put down! Once you get pulled into it, only Solovey (Nightingale) himself can help you out of it! And that’s only because he would be exhausted of Vasya trying to braid his mane and need something to do.

Like I said above, this isn’t a quick book. But if you’re looking for a novel you could really get into, get invested in the plot and the characters (both the human heroes and the storybook villains), and enjoy the inevitable book hangover that follows, you need to pick up “The Bear and the Nightingale”. To tell you the truth, I don’t think I can wait too long for the sequel! Rating – 8.5/10.

 

Recommendations

You would enjoy “The Bear and the Nightingale” if you liked:

“Egg & Spoon” by Gregory Maguire

“Uprooted” by Naomi Novik

“Deathless” by Catherynne Valente

 

Have you read “The Bear and the Nightingale”? What are your favourite books inspired by Russian folklore and history? Let me know in the comments and I’ll add them to my TBR!

 

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