The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Originally published in 2017 by Del Rey (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
It has always seemed ironic to me that we use the term “fairy tale” to mean happy and sweet: a “fairy tale” romance, a “fairy tale” wedding. Anyone who’s spent more than a minute or two in the world of fairy tales knows just how hearbreaking and bitter they can be. The Bear and the Nightingale whisks readers off to a place where household spirits require sacrifices of blood, where rusalki might drag you off and drown you in a lake, where the dead rise from their graves and tear horses in two.
The Russian mythology that Katherine Arden draws from was unfamiliar to me, but that sense of delicious fairy tale danger was not. If you’re tired of fantasy novels set in the perilously lovely worlds of Mount Olympus, Asgard, Faerie, or Tír na nÓg, The Bear and the Nightingale might just be the cure for what ails you. It’s original and gorgeous, vivid and haunting. I absolutely loved it.
The protagonist, Vasya, is the youngest daughter of Pyotr Vladimirovich, a boyar in the medieval kingdom of Rus’. Her mother died in childbirth, but not before wishing that Vasya might inherit the powers of her mysterious, witch-like grandmother. In time, Vasya becomes everything her mother dreamed and more: a clever, headstrong girl who has a supernatural ability with horses and talks to spirits no one else can see. But her idyllic life changes forever when Pyotr marries Anna, a frail, devout princess of Moscow who scoffs at the old customs of honoring the spirits of household and forest. When Anna invites a zealous priest to live in the village, fear begins to spread like a contagion, fueling an ancient force that threatens to destroy everything Vasya holds dear.
The Bear and the Nightingale is told in the lilting prose of a fairy tale, using an omniscient third person voice that bounces effortlessly between the perspective of Vasya, Anna, Pyotr, and many other characters. Arden’s writing utterly transported me to the world of medieval Rus’, especially its ominous weather; the real-life forces of nature are written as only slightly less terrifying than the evil spirits, and one of the most memorable (and horrifying) scenes in the book involves a small child freezing to death in his mother’s arms during a particularly harsh winter.
Any modern writer who tries to write a story based on fairy tales runs the risk of creating flat, boring characters. The narrative structure of fairy tales just isn’t designed to allow the growth and development that readers like to see in characters in a full-length novel. But Arden is more than a match for this problem. All the characters are lovable and interesting in their own way, and that’s especially true of Anna, who could have been a mere wicked stepmother but comes across as a much more tragic and nuanced antagonist instead. She and Vasya are perfect foils for one another, and even when Anna is horribly cruel towards Vasya, you can still understand and sympathize with her motivations.
If I might lodge one tiny complaint about The Bear and the Nightingale, it’s that it drags a tad in the middle section, causing the final climactic battle to feel a little rushed. At the same time, there’s some incredible worldbuilding that happens in that section that I’d have been sad to see sacrificed, so I’d say the whole thing’s a net neutral. (And at a tight 336 pages, The Bear and the Nightingale is on the shorter side for a fantasy novel, making that slow middle even easier to take.)
The Bear and the Nightingale is an instant fantasy classic. I can’t wait to pick up the rest of the trilogy, beginning with the second installment, The Girl in the Tower. ★★★★★
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