Book Review: THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE by Katherine Arden

cover description: a girl stands before a fire-lit cottage in a dark, snowy wood.

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. ★★★★★

Buy it or add it to your shelf:

I purchased my copy of The Bear and the Nightingale myself and was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 3.15.19

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week I indulged in some Barnes & Noble wandering (looking for the print copy of The New Yorker that I appeared in!) and some e-book bargain hunting. I’ve been watching my spending closely over the past few months since I took so much time off of work, so I’d almost forgotten how nice it is to wander between bookstore shelves, consumed with the possibility of the damn good stories each title might hold. Lovely.

Before we dive in, I wanted to share that my heart goes out to New Zealand today and to the Muslim community around the world. I’m praying for healing, justice, and a strong rebuke of the white nationalist terror that is on the upswing online and globally. Here is a list of places you can donate to support victims of the attack and the wider Muslim community in New Zealand.

Here are the books I picked up this week:


My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

My Sister the Serial Killer Coverthe premise: Korede is used to cleaning up after her serial killer sister, Ayoola. She keeps Ayoola’s secrets and tries to mind her own business; family comes first, after all. But when Ayoola begins to pursue a doctor whom Korede loves, putting his life at risk, Korede must choose which beloved to save.

why I’m excited: This book sounds absolutely bananas, like a grown-up and Nigerian version of Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves, a YA novel (one of my favorites!) about a set of supernatural serial killer sisters. I mean, this novel can only go spectacularly or horribly, right? And even if it goes horribly, it’s going to put on quite a show. Family, murder, love, secrets–it doesn’t get more deliciously soapy than that.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Bear and the Nightingale Coverthe premise: At the edge of the Russian wilderness, Vasilisa listens to her nurse’s fairy tales. Her favorite is the story of Frost, a blue-eyed winter demon who steals unwary souls. The village honors the spirits to protect themselves, until Vasilisa’s widowed father brings home a devout wife from Moscow, who’s determined to tame the village and her rebellious stepdaughter. Evil begins to stalk the village, and Vasilisa must call upon secret powers to protect her family from a supernatural threat.

why I’m excited: I live in a cold and sometimes frightening climate myself (for example: right now, in March, there are still knee-deep snowdrifts outside my front door!), so I have a soft spot for fantasy built around Russian folklore. This novel looks to have it all: evil spirits, evil stepmothers, dangerous protective gifts. Hell yeah. I can’t wait to curl up with a cup of hot chocolate to enjoy this one. (It’s the first in the Winternight trilogy.)

Serpent in the Heather by Kay Kenyon

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Serpent in the Heather Coverthe premise: From the back cover:

Summer, 1936. In England, an assassin is loose. Someone is killing young people who possess Talents. As terror overtakes Britain, Kim Tavistock, now officially employed by England’s Secret Intelligence Service, is sent on her first mission to the remote Sulcliffe Castle in Wales, to use her cover as a journalist to infiltrate a spiritualist cult that may have ties to the murders. Meanwhile, Kim’s father, trained spy Julian Tavistock, runs his own parallel investigation–and discovers the terrifying Nazi plot behind the serial killings…

why I’m excited: This is actually the second book in Kay Kenyon’s Dark Talents series, something I didn’t realize when I bought it. (It’s not written anywhere!) The fact that the publisher is so blasé about the novel’s place in the trilogy makes me hope it’ll work as a stand-alone, since this premise is just as bananas as My Sister, the Serial Killer and also features Nazis. Nazi serial killers! Checkmate, my wallet. I had to get it.

My wife is a hardcore WWII history buff and also a big fan of the Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger, so this is right up her alley. She’s the one who picked it off the shelf. We’ll be fighting over it, I’m sure.

Authority and Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Authority Coverthe premise: Authority and Acceptance are the sequels to Annihilation, which I reviewed some months ago. Together, they make up the Area X trilogy, about a lush, remote, ever-expanding land that’s deadly, full of mysteries, and seems to threaten human life as we know it. Yay! (The first book was adapted into a movie by Alex Garland, but the books definitely take things in a different direction.)

Acceptance Coverwhy I’m excited: I didn’t love everything about Annihilation, but damn, did it get under my skin. I think about it and talk about it all the time. If you love nature, if you’re worried about climate change, if you’re deeply concerned with what humans are doing to the planet, you have to read this trilogy. It’s about all of that anxiety without being too literal about it. From what I’ve heard, Authority and Acceptance don’t pick up where the first book left off: they go in entirely new and exciting directions. I can’t wait.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!