The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Updated: May 30, 2020
Let me just start by saying I ate this book up. I thought the beginning was a little slow, but the pace picked up pretty quickly and then it was very hard to put down. I am incredibly excited to get my hands on the other two books in the trilogy, and I highly recommend it to anyone who likes fantasy or fairy tales.
The Bear and the Nightingale is a fantasy novel set in medieval Russia. It centers around Vasya, a girl of noble birth, who over the course of the novel, grows to womanhood. Unlike most women, Vasya can see things others cannot, the cheyrti or spirits of Russian folklore. She spends her childhood observing the old customs and befriending the household spirits and those who live in the forest around her father’s house.
With the arrival of her very religious stepmother, and the priest, Father Konstantine, Vasya finds her life quickly changing. Father Konstantine chides her people for believing in spirits, and the attitude of the local village shifts toward Christianity over paganism. With this shift come disaster after disaster. Meanwhile, Vasya’s talent has caught the attention of powerful magical beings, and a war of epic proportions begins to brew.
Feminism in the Medieval Era
One of the things that really struck me about this novel was the strong feminist message. Vasya is not a princess, waiting to be rescued, or falling under an enchantment, she’s a real heroine, brave and independent. Unfortunately for her, the era in which she lives doesn’t put up with that sort of thing. A constant theme in the narrative is that women of high birth have two choices in her world; marriage or convent life. Her sisters, Olga and Irina have no problem with this, Olga is happily married early in the novel, and Irina is a perfect little princess. Vasya has no interest in marriage, though on some level always knew it was coming. And though she considers herself a Christian, the last thing she wants is to become a nun.
She does what she wants, and this tends to rub her family and the villagers the wrong way, nearly incurring deadly results. I won’t give anything away, but this makes the ending of the novel really enjoyable.
I felt like Arden did a really good job reflecting the other characters’ reactions to Vasya’s independence. Nobody feels the same way about it. Her father worries about her future, but at the same time sort of admires her strength. Her stepmother flat-out hates her. Her brothers both have differing opinions. And Father Konstantine, well, he’s just a hot mess about a lot of things. I really loved the depth surrounding this issue that’s sort of threaded throughout. Plus, Vasya’s refusal to accept her place in society adds an extra conflict that really raises the stakes.
The Hearth vs. the Church
One of the major themes of the novel is how the spread of Christianity in medieval Russia destroys the old traditions. Vasya is very in tune with the spirits around her, both borne of her household and nature. Anna Ivanovna, her step-mother, is the polar opposite. Since she was young, she too has been aware of the spirits, but being deeply religious, considers them demons and devils. The only respite she can find is in churches, where the spirits, or cheyrti, don’t go, so she obsesses over being pious and wants to be sent to a convent. Instead, she is married off to Pytor Vladimirovich, Vasya’s father, to hide her “madness.” She hates and fears all spirits, so her life is a rather unhappy one, full of fear and spitefulness.
Father Konstantine does not believe in cheyrti, but does believe he’s been chosen by God to save the people of Vasya’s village from themselves. He fills them with fear for their souls and drives them to stop leaving offerings for the cheyrti, with disastrous results.
Meanwhile, the Russian fairytales of old seem to become more and more real for Vasya as she grows older.
It’s very much a story of Christianity vs. Paganism.
A Taste of Something New
I love stories that take place in settings that are new to me. It makes them just that much more interesting. Arden takes loving care to depict medieval Russia accurately (as best she can) while also making the novel accessible to most readers. She tweaked a few details for dramatic effect, but you can see the effort she put in to paint a clear historical picture for her audience. Her use of Russian vocabulary is smooth, not jarring at all, and easily pronounced. As you read, social order, religion and culture unfold before you. Fantasy and sci-fi readers should have few problems acclimating to the setting. There is also a handy glossary in the back of the book. Those who do not have a strong grasp of history, or Russian culture, fear not. You will still probably enjoy this read.
Strong, Complex Characters
I really enjoyed Arden’s characters. Vasya’s family all have their own fears and motivations and opinions, as do literally everyone else, down to Oleg, the servant. Arden’s skills with characterization and letting you get a feel for people are quickly are very strong. As soon as I’d finished The Bear, I wanted to read on just to find out what happens to Vasya and her family. Since the first novel in the Winternight trilogy stands alone, I really have no idea where the next story is going to take me.
Watching Father Konstantine change and reveal his true self was probably one of the more interesting aspects of the book, whatever you might feel about him by the end, he is an engaging character full of internal conflict. Watching Vasya’s relationships change as she grew older and her talents became stronger was a nice counternote to the almost constant wonder I felt watching the action of the story progress.
It Has a Little Bit of Everything
So, we’ve got a bit of a traditional fantastical medieval setting. There’s magic, there’s nobility, warriors, monsters. You also get some political intrigue and a dash of family drama. Oh, and horror. And a touch of romance. And a fun little subversion of Chekov’s gun for the reading writers out there.
What really appealed to me was the romance and the world-building. The romance because, well, I like a little bit of a love story, but not too much? I don't want it to upstage the rest of the narrative, but it needs to leave me wanting more at the same time. It's a difficult balancing act, but I feel like this book really nails it. The "love story" aspect doesn't really start until the last third of the book, but it was absolutely worth the wait.
A Very Few Caveats, Dear Reader
This book includes: -Some non-graphic sexual assault -Non-graphic child death -Somewhat graphic animal death
What's it Like?
Take the best aspects of old school fairytales and give them a dash of feminism and medival horror and you approach how awesome this book is.