The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden is one of those books that not everyone seems to know about, but everyone who’s read it seems to love it. It’s a novel based in Russian folk tales, history and culture, and it’s the first book of her Winternight trilogy. The second book is The Girl in the Tower (released Dec. 5, 2017) and the third, The Winter of the Witch, is coming out January 8th, 2019.
For me, this book was an obvious choice. I find Slavic culture fascinating. I love Russian words with their elongated vowels and the soft palatalized consonants, the charming diminutives used in their names, and the comforting low pitch of the language’s stresses. Plus, I’m a sucker for fairy-tale and folk-tale type stories. Of course, that also meant I had high expectations for this book.
Before we proceed, can we please talk about this book cover? I’m so perplexed by what happened here. This is another one of those situations where the U.K. versions just seem so vastly superior to the U.S. version.
The first one is the original beautiful cover, which was replaced by the second one, which is lovely as well, though not my favorite. And the last one is what’s available in U.S. which is not bad, but is certainly worse, right? The first one unfortunately is harder to find nowadays but the second one you can get pretty easily. Anyway, moving on.
The Bear and the Nightingale takes place in medieval Russia with Czars and Grand Princes, lords and boyars (feudal Russian aristocracy) roaming about the land.
Vasya and her family live in a small forested village, Lesnaya Zemlya, to the north of Moscow. Her father is a boyar, lord of their village as well as several surrounding villages. Her mother dies when she is young, but her mother believes that Vasya will grow up to be like her grandmother, a woman was said to have had witch-like powers and who was married to a Grand Prince.
Vasya grows up on tales and of the old Russian gods and folkloric creatures. However, when she is older, a young Christian priest (known as a Batyushka) comes to town to take over the ministry of the small village around the time that her father marries a woman who deeply fears the old beliefs. When Vasya’s powers begin to materialize, she realizes she will have to rely on them to protect their village, even as her beliefs clash with those around her.
The Bear in a Nightingale is a book firmly rooted in its cultural heritage. From the rusalka (a mermaid or water nymph-like creatures) to the domovoi (which are similar to house elves) and even upyrs (Russian vampires of lore) — the story is littered with the trappings of uniquely Russian folklore, lending it extra color, character and vibrancy.
And while Arden’s novel is unabashedly fantastical in nature, it also covers the much more grounded topic of the clash between pagan and Christian beliefs in feudal Russia. I actually think the book could have been marketed to a wider audience. It’s mostly sold as a “book based on folklore” (which it is), but even people who generally aren’t folklore-fantasy readers can enjoy and appreciate the cultural and historical aspects of this story.
In an interview, Arden describes some of the background research that shaped the story, “Slavic paganism never really disappeared from the Russian countryside after the arrival of Christianity; rather they coexisted, with some friction, for centuries. I was fascinated by the tensions inherent in such a system, as well as the notion of a complicated magical world interacting so subtly with the real one.”
I found her exploration of Russian pagan and Christian beliefs fascinating and unique, and I’d go as far as to say that this book is worth reading for that alone.
“I think you should be careful, Batyushka, that God does not speak in the voice of your own wishing.”
As for the other aspects of the novel, Arden’s writing has an even, soothing and easily moving cadence to it that makes the book particularly readable. She also has a subtle playfulness in her storytelling, small bits of humor, that give it some charm. The slightly dark and fanciful plot moves quickly, making for an imaginative and enchanting ride.
A Few (Minor) Gripes
It’s not a perfect novel, of course. The character development is a little flat and the resolution of the book kind of comes out of nowhere and wasn’t entirely satisfying. Some aspects of the story are not as well developed as I would have liked, leaving me with some big question marks as far as the world-building goes; for example, the concept of how the “binding” of the spirit works is fairly murky. And a lot of the boundaries of the powers of both Vasya and the various spirits is clouded in ambiguity.
But overall, the book is well worth a read. This is also Arden’s debut novel, so I’m inclined to give her some slack. I liked it enough that I plan on reading the next installments, but I hope they end up addressing some of my unanswered questions. I assume the subplots that are introduced but disappear (what’s up with Sasha?) will be revisited in later books, but I still wish they could’ve been wrapped up a bit neater here.
The book introduces a variety of elements of Slavic lore or paganism, referred to as chyerti, which are basically spirits or demons. For example, Morozko, otherwise known as Ded Moroz, is known in Russian folklore as a frost demon. But before the introduction of Christianity to Russia, demons did not have the negative connotations they do now. Under the later influence of the Russian Orthodoxy and Russian authors, he transformed into more of a “Father Christmas”-type character. Here, the character of Morozko is entwined with that of Chernobog, a Slavic deity of death.
Others that the book incorporates that haven’t been mentioned already include the vazila, a creature that looks like a man but has hooves and horns (not unlike the fawn in the Chronicles of Narnia), which is a spirit or demon that protects horses. And also the Leshy — forest spirits, known to be potentally dangerous but generally neutral towards humans depending on their attitudes toward the forest.
As a sidenote, there is a small glossary of words at the end of the book that I (sadly) did not discover until I had finished the book. I hope that you all will make better use of it than I did.
Read it or Skip it?
The Bear and the Nightingale is a pretty easy book to recommend to anyone with even a passing interest in folklore, Slavic mythology, Russian medieval culture or fairytale-type stories in general. It’s unique, fantastical and a relatively fast read. Even in the places where it comes up short, it doesn’t feel like wasted time.
If you liked Spinning Silver or Uprooted (both of which have a folklore-ish type feel), you should consider reading this, though this novel is a bit darker in tone than Novik’s works. Also, its frosty setting in northern Russia make it a good wintertime book, to be read with a cup of hot cider at hand.