Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

25489134At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind–she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed–this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

Do you love fairytales?

The snow at the window, warm blankets around you, small things in the corners that live off our belief. Kings of winter in the woods, girls who speak with river spirits, houses that are evergreen groves. Forests with white snow and dark, dark shadows.

This is a world that survives off stories.

I need to start by talking about Katherine Arden’s writing. I can’t really pinpoint an exact example, but it just conjures this perfect union of fairytale wonder and gritty realism. The writing style alone transports you to a world where those two things co-exist.

The characters are also so wonderfully drawn. Obviously, Vasya is our heroine and I will get to her in a moment, but I just need to talk for a moment about Anna Ivanovna, Vasya’s stepmother. It would have been so easy for her to have been your one-dimensional evil stepmother, but, even if I didn’t like her, I pitied her for the life she had to live and the complete lack of choice she had over her own fate.

And now Vasya. Headstrong, spirited Vasya. She’s strong-willed without feeling anachronistic. She’s brave. She’s kind. Yes, she’s here to be the maiden heroine of this fairytale. No, she isn’t going to conform to what fairytale heroines are expected to be. She’s just so alive and vibrant and no wonder my secret husband favourite frost demon and his bitch-ass brother are so fixated on her.

As for the setting, Arden captured it perfectly. I grew up with winters that felt endless, the nights starting sometime before four o’clock. And, boy, does Arden nail that atmosphere. The cold. The wind. And the dark beauty in it, as personified in an eerily enchanting frost demon shown in her writing.

It’s everything about this book. It’s the writing. It’s the characters. It’s the setting. It’s the atmosphere. And it’s something else, something that, like the creatures in this book, are mostly invisible to our eyes, but you can feel it there. Magical. Bewitching. Just this side of impossible.Bravo, Katherine Arden.

Verdict: buy it

Have you read The Bear and the Nightingale? What did you think? Are you in love with Morozko? Which books do you think have fairytale atmospheres?

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One thought on “Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

  1. Pingback: September Wrap-Up | Death By A Thousand Paper Cuts

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