This novel was recommended to me by a friend long time ago, when the author Katherine Arden actually visited my home country of Serbia. It has been on my reading list ever since and I do regret only getting around to it now. To be honest, I had strong prejudice against it as it is a book that heavily relies on Russian folk-tales and legends written by an American author. However, from the pages of ‘The Bear and the Nightingale’ it is clear that Arden has a lot of respect and knowledge about this topic. She is also an excellent storyteller and I believe that she did really well in combining those legends with her characters and the temporal setting of her story. As a Slavic person, I was somewhat familiar with old Russian stories, so it was very nice to see this culture be positively represented and re imagined in such as popular book.
The novel is set during the Dark ages of Russia in a small village on the edge of wilderness. Here all the creatures and spirits of old religion are still alive and people leave them offerings. Winters are harsh and long and the people living in those conditions are resilient, strong and stubborn. The protagonist, a young girl called Vasya, can actually see and converse with them, understanding their importance. This brings her into the conflict with her stepmother and the newly appointed priest Konstantin who both desperately want to get rid of the creatures and enforce Orthodox Christianity without question, not aware of the danger that lurks in the forest. This narration is also combined with the stories that the nanny Dunya tells the kids as well as the events at the Moscow court that influence life in the village. Arden controls her story at all times, and she is able to draw clear correlations between events so that it is clear what they are important. This is a big story and it feels like the author keeps all the threads in check.
The third person narration worked quite well for me in this novel. It also follows multiple characters and offers their motivation, so no human characters feel like they are necessarily evil or malicious, just misunderstood and misaligned. I have heard some criticism that the pace is slow, which I can understand. However, for me, it made sense because it reflected the often slow and monotone life during winter months when they were nothing to do but wait and try to keep warm and semi full. What I loved the most is the atmosphere of the book. The cold, fear and anxiety were all present throughout the novel and I believe this has made it more effective in conveying the story to the reader. On the other hand, more positive aspects of the story, such as descriptions of the churches and Orthodox customs also hit home to me, as they were quite similar to my small town church in Serbia that paint some of my childhood memories. The style is also quite lyrical, but easy to follow and understand, perfectly bringing the age-old stories to life. It seems that Arden truly understands the meaning and reasons behind folk-tales and is therefore able to combine them with the human stories, often contrasing and often making paralels between them.
I loved the characters in the novel. As I already mentioned, disregarding the main mythical vilain, I did not feel like any of the human characters were evil. In fantasy/YA novels, I often find the trope of the chosen one quite annoying due to the main character being quite plain and incompetent, relying on others to pick up the slack. However with Vasya that is not the case. She does have the ‘gift’ and the second vision that she inherited from her mother, but she herself is a very interesting person. She is almostly foolishy brave, but also loyal to her family and with a big heart. On the other hand, her stepmother, Anna Ivanovna, sees her gift as a curse as she cannot and does not want to understand it. She is frequently cruel towards Vasya and her stepchildren, which was difficult to read about. However, she is also a tragic figure, especially in the way her story ends. Another character I want to point out is Konstantin, a priest that comes to their village. Maybe I am reading too much into it, but for me, he read like the criticism of being overly zealous and not listening to others. Although he did not have a bad ending, his actions and refusal to understand Vasya and take her seriously led to some major tragedies. I still found his character quite fascinating, and I hope that we get to see more of him in the sequels. Overall, I found Vasya’s family really fascinating and I am looking forward to reading more about Olga and Sasha, who did not get enough space in this book.
Finally, I loved the ending of the book. While the biggest conflict of the novel was somewhat resolved and the novel is a full narrative on its own, it also leaves a lot of room for a sequel. I think this shows that Arden is an organized author as she also left clues throughout the first book that she will explore later. For example, the mention of the invasion is mentioned in the second chapter of ‘The Girl in the Tower’ the sequel of the book. (My edition had the preview at the end.) The ending felt logical and none of the characters felt out of place. It really did read like a culmination of everything that was happening throughout the novel. I was a little apprehensive of the ending as I kept reading as often the ending is where the story can fall apart, but I really commend Arden for this one as well.
‘The Bear and the Nightingale’ is the first installment in the Winter Trilogy and so far I am fairly confident that I will continue reading it. Judging from the first two chapters of the sequel I have read, the narrative strength, well-designed characters and inclusion of stories and historical fiction are all still present. Given that these are the aspects of the first book I loved the most, I think that I will enjoy the other two as well. Did you read this book? What did you think about it?