Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale

I haven’t tried writing a book review since A level English Lit (and if you think I’m going to tell you how long ago that was, you can think again pal), but I wanted to try it out. Fair warning: This review does contain plot spoilers right up to the end of the book, although I don’t go out of my way to discuss the intricacies of the story. Still, if you plan to read it yourself, save this review for after you’re done.

Cover for The Bear and the Nightingale, an illustrated nightingale perches on the stem of a red flower in front of a snowy villagescape at the bottom of the image. Most of the cover is a dark night with stars scattered across it, and the title is in large font taking up a good third of the cover.

Vasya isn’t like others in her village. She is fearless and wild, and she can see the spirits that live among her people and out in the untamed woods. When those she lives among are turned to God, they begin to regard her and her strangeness with suspicion, especially as the harshest winter they have ever known seizes the village. With all around her turning from the old ways, can Vasya hope to stand alone against the terrible power growing in the forest?

The Bear and the Nightingale is the first book by Texan author Katherine Arden. I initially picked it up because it was giving me ‘Uprooted’ (Naomi Novik) vibes, and I’ve read and re-read that book more times than I can count. Happily, I enjoyed this just as much as I did ‘Uprooted’, and I foresee many re-reads in our future together.

This book had quite a slow build to the main action, it was more than 100 pages in when the characters for the main conflict were all introduced and in the same place, but that build up wasn’t wasted time. I’m a fast reader, but I found myself slowing down to fully appreciate passage after passage, page after page of beautifully atmospheric writing. There were moments where I felt the descriptions got a little too pleased-with-themselves, but those were few and far between. Largely the writing came off as unselfconsciously gorgeous, and the tone was spot on, creating a sense of magic and wonder that perfectly complemented the dark fairytale vibe of the story.

There were a lot of characters up-front, and it took me a little bit to keep them straight in my head, especially as each character had a proper name and two nickname versions of their proper name which they were called interchangably by different characters. Vasya’s relationships with her siblinngs were even harder to pin down than the names in some cases. The family dynamics were realistically varied and complex, and I thought Vasya’s relationships with her father, the nurse/mother figure Dunya, her stepsister Irina and her brother Alyosha were rich and vibrant and added a lot to the narrative.

The other siblings I thought were a lot weaker, and I wondered more than once if some (I’m thinking here mostly of Olga and Sasha, the older siblings who leave home in those first 100 pages and play no role in the story from then on) were introduced with the intention of having them play a larger role in the rest of the trilogy.

The stepmother was a bit of a caricature, which I don’t take issue with because it fits with the folklore theme, and I thought she had an interesting character arc which played out nice and clearly without needing a lot of time dedicated to it. Actually, I think Anna’s plotline is a great illustration how concise and clear the storytelling in this book was, even amongst the intricate description and atmospheric work going on. Her core character traits remain the same: she can see things she doesn’t want to be able to see, and she is mortally afraid of them. When we first see her, that fear has left her meek and mumbling, filthy because she’s too scared even to go to the baths. For a long time her one safe place is the church, and when she meets the strong-willed and incredibly persuasive priest who claims he can rid her of her demons her fear starts to manifest differently. Instead of being inward-facing, she directs it outward as anger at the heathen world around her.

Almost none of this needs to be said explicitly in the narrative, her changing views weave flawlessly into the rest of the story and move the plot along, like so many other characters. A real strength of this book, to my mind, is the deft handling of a cast of (mostly) highly individual characters, each with their own clear motivations.

Magic had a relatively light touch in this story. Two of the main characters, the dangerous ally and the big-bad, are characters from folklore, but they don’t show up shooting spells from their fingertips. Theirs is the magic of nature, of the Old Places. The magic of knowing that a thing doesn’t have to be as it first appears. I love this kind of magic, and I enjoyed everything the Winter King did. Except. I really wasn’t into the heat-of-the-moment, midst-of-battle kiss.

Neither, it seems, was the book – it was a real blink and you miss it moment, and as far as I remember Vasya didn’t give it a second thought once that whole battle sequence was done with, even though she’d been given a very transparent moment of wistful wondering after he was nice to her at night one time. If I sound petty, I apologise. It’s not that I hate the idea of a romance sub-plot between Vasya and the spirit of death, I could be up for that, I just don’t feel like the narrative has either justified it or committed to it at this stage, and that I find annoying.

Right, I feel like I’ve done quite a bit of complaining, so here’s a quick-fire list of things I loved, for there were many.

  • The range of spirits that Vasya interacts with, and the way they each got their own personalities and roles within the story.
  • Any time Vasya was riding a horse, the description of that made me feel like I was flying.
  • The horses themselves! They got so much personality as well! Loved every single horse. More horses in book #2 please. (And I’m not even a horse person, for the record.)
  • Konstantin’s (the priest) feelings towards Vasya started complicated and stayed complicated, but I never got bored of being in his head while he tried to unpick them.
  • Alyosha helping Vasya even when he was pissed off with her was one of those perfect sibling moments. I, too, have a brother who would dig up a dead body with me if I said it was important. Probably.
  • I know I made it sound like a complaint earlier, but I actually really enjoyed the way you could tell how characters felt about each other by which version of each other’s names they used. The fact that Vasya called her stepsister Irinka felt like a nice way of underscoring the affection they feel for each other, despite their weird family dynamics.

There were more; moments that made me laugh out loud, characters I fell in love with and descriptions that made me catch my breath, but I’m going to call it a day there. All told, I had a great time reading this book, and I will be eagerly awaiting the sequels!

Featured Image of open book with glasses by Dariusz Sankowski from Pixabay

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