Book Review: Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale

bear1[Please note: I received an Advanced Reading Copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange only for an honest and thorough review. This is (to the best of my ability) a spoiler-free review.] 

Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale begins entrenched in frost and folktales, winter and spirits of the house and forest. Vasilisa Petrovnich is born into a world of deep tradition but also into an inheritance of her maternal grandmother’s legend. Her beautiful mother dies in childbirth, leaving her husband with five children to raise on his own. When he chooses to remarry, Vasya’s stepmother threatens her people’s way of life and the girl’s own freedom; ancient fantastical forces loom at the edge of the forest and famine and freeze encroach on the people. When danger straight from her old nurse’s fairy tales threaten those she loves, Vasya must discover powers, strength, and rebellion she has long hidden from those she must protect.

The tale of Vasya’s life opens on a world of cold and frost: “It was late winter in northern Rus’, the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow.” It is the perfect book to read this cold, snowy time of year. The Rus’ winter is fraught with danger — freeze, fear, and the threat of death — and the magic of old folktales and traditions. This winter, though, is both real and magical; it is both a deep freeze and the frost demon of Rus’ fairy tales. Both exist at the same time, but only Vasya can see it. Vasya has the sight: She can see and speak to the chyerty, the spirits of the house, the animals, and the forest. In her world, the chyerty overlap with the real, and she interacts with them as often as she does the people of her village. The Bear and the Nightingale is a magic, ethereal story that borders on magical realism with its footholds in both the fairy tales and real life of medieval Rus’. Politics and the budding Christian religion clash with Vasya’s experiences of frost demons, companionable horses, and the undead walking. This makes for an enthralling, spell-binding story perfect for readers who love fairy tales, their danger, and their retellings.

Arden’s debut young adult novel is simultaneously beautiful and eerie. Her language is entrancing and fully embraces the reader in the text. The Bear and the Nightingale doesn’t miss details and deftly juggles an expansive cast of characters. Each character — especially each of Vasya’s brothers — has a noticeable personality and is distinct from the next in a way that vividly brings the story to life. Even the cheryty with whom Vasya interacts are detailed and fascinating. I was so engrossed by this book that, at night, every dark corner in the house and every shadowy stand of trees had glowing eyes staring back at me. Arden perfectly conveys her love and respect for Rus’ fairy tales and mythical legends, making every reader as beguiled by the spirits and Morozko — especially his “journey (from wicked pagan god to giver of treats to children),” which she conveys by considering “such a character’s mind as he was making that transition over the centuries” —  as she is.

Just as Arden’s rendering of Rus’ folktales is rich, seductive, and beautiful, so her protagonist Vasya is even more so. She grows up a wild-child and her family refers to her lovingly as their own little “wood-sprite.” She steals her brothers’ trousers, climbs trees, and spends more time with the horses than in the kitchen. Her city-bred stepmother, despite her best efforts to tame Vasya and groom her for marriage or a convent, has little effect on raising the insatiable, untamable girl. Vasya, as described by other characters, is ethereal and beautiful in a strange, almost savage way. Her mind is sharp, her tongue sharper, and her body built for running, not childbirth. She rejects all attempts to marry her off and risks death rather than being packed off to a convent. She is powerful in her own right and refuses to hide it from anyone, reprimanding everyone — from her fiancé to a horse, from house spirits to dangerous, ancient demons. Though the text as well as her parental authority figures attempt to make this a marriage plot, Vasya adamantly rejects and breaks down the archetypal plot at every turn. Vasya has her own mind, refusing to bend to others’ wills. The following passage perfectly sums her up for me:

“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 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.”

How badass is that?

Ultimately, Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale is a stunning, poetic, and lush debut that promises to whisk every reader to a new world of winter, power, and magic. Although the opening two parts of the text are slow — a literal intimation of Vasya’s life from birth to the last scene in the book — they kept me enthralled all the same. This review is struggling to convey how much I loved this book, so, suffice it to say, this book is enchanting and beautiful, inside and out. The first in a promising trilogy, Vasya’s journey challenges us to see the fantastic in the real and to consider how far we will go for others and for freedom. A perfect pick for lovers of winter, of magic, or of fairy tales — or all of the above —, The Bear and the Nightingale will capture your love and attention and absolute devotion.

 

Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale will be released January 10, 2017, with Del Rey.

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