I feel terrible that it has taken me so long to write this review. It’s certainly not because I didn’t like The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. Quite the opposite. I loved this book. In fact, the hardest part of writing this review has been organizing my thoughts beyond, “Wow, go buy this book now!”
Believe me, a positive review was the last thing on my mind when I first heard of Arden’s debut novel. I started getting e-mails from NetGalley and the publisher giving a very hard sell, which made me very suspicious. But, despite all the lofty claims, I realized that there wouldn’t be a push like this if the publisher didn’t think this novel had what it took to be a bestseller. And despite my reluctance, despite my suspicions, Arden won me over. Of course, it didn’t help that like her, I had studied in Russia. I’m a sucker for its legends and fables. And so I fell for this book. Hard.
This book lives up to the hype. Arden offers an original take on old legends, and she sets her story in a rich, authentic world populated by a cast of detailed characters torn between the traditions of the old world and their desire for something better either in the next world or just next year.
Vasilisa is the daughter of a Russian frontier prince and a woman who had strange, magical powers. During birth, Vasilisa’s mother died, so Vasya was raised by a nurse who filled the girl’s head with tales of Winter and the spirits that inhabit the woods that surround her home.
Years later, her father travels to Moscow to find a new wife. He returns with Vasilisa’s new stepmother and a stepsister (yes, this story hit a lot of fairy tale markers, but they never feel like a trope), as well as an ardent priest, driven to strip these people of their old world beliefs. He also returns with a strange talisman for Vasilisa that a strange man gave to her father.
The snow piles up, the stores of crops grow thin, and the region’s spirits begin to die off. But Vasilisa has been learning from those spirits while doing her best to sustain them. But the villagers—and especially her stepmother—call her a witch and shun her. Does she bring doom or their last chance for salvation? Is it Winter knocking at their door, or something worse? Will Vasilisa the fearless, the stubborn, the wild save her people?
I’ll get to the characters in a minute, but I want to start with the world of this book. There is an authenticity here. Arden’s scholarship, her experience shine through. I remember visiting villages and wooden churches outside of St. Petersburg. This is the world Arden inhabits.
But it’s more than the buildings. It’s also the relationships, the clothing, the attitudes. And the fantastical elements as well. From the larger characters like Winter to the smaller household spirits, it all rang true. And if you are unfamiliar with Russian elements, the story won’t throw you. It will feel familiar to any fan of fairy tales. But just in case, there is a brief glossary in the back.
Now the characters. There is a large cast here, but main character or secondary character, Arden has given each strong motivations (the lord fighting to protect his fief, the wild and fearless princess defying all in the name of a larger good, the devoted priest absolutely confident in his faith, the doting nanny sacrificing for the children in her care). There is a saying that plot is character–that the choices well-motivated characters make determine the plot. But it can still be a tremendously difficult thing to pull off. Arden succeeds and separates her tale from most fairy tales where the characters are more like two-dimensional stereotypes, more puppet than person.
The pacing of the story has a slow burn in the beginning, but Arden draws you in and puts you under her spell. Before you know it, you’re lost in her world, just like Vasilisa in the dark woods that border her village. It’s an adventure, and only the strong and the bold will survive. Thank goodness readers have Vasilisa to show us the way.
The Bear and the Nightingale was the first book I read in 2017. Part of me is worried that I might have peaked early. But if the rest of the year is as good as this book, 2017 will be something special. And all those hard-selling comparisons I mentioned above? Yeah, Arden does belong with Naomi Novik and Neil Gaiman. I can’t wait to see what she reads next.