Book Title: The Bear and the Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Goodreads Link: Click here
Star Rating: – Wonderful! A new favorite.
Disclaimer: I received this book free from Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review.
I’m not even sure where to start with this book. Let’s get going with the synopsis.
A young woman’s family is threatened by forces both real and fantastical in this debut novel inspired by Russian fairy tales.
In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, a stranger with piercing blue eyes presents a new father with a gift – a precious jewel on a delicate chain, intended for his young daughter. Uncertain of its meaning, Pytor hides the gift away and Vasya grows up a wild, willful girl, to the chagrin of her family. But when mysterious forces threaten the happiness of their village, Vasya discovers that, armed only with the necklace, she may be the only one who can keep the darkness at bay.
This is a wild and starkly beautiful book. The author took great care to research and base her stories on old Russian folktales and as a result this book is full of magic and peril. The atmosphere and locations are bleak and icy cold. You feel as though this story can easily spin out of control and that the safety and future happiness of your favorite characters is by no means guaranteed. I love books like that.
That sense of danger makes it a compelling read, which is then amplified by the sense of culture and history you get when reading. I had a great time looking up the demons of Russian folktales that exist in the book. For example, the Domovoi, little household spirits who protect the people who feed them and Morozco, a kind of ice god who can freeze the life out of you. There were many other interesting creatures and I really wish I were more familiar with Russian fairy tales, I feel like it would have added to my enjoyment. Ultimately, at the crux of the story is the fading belief in the Old Gods with the advent of Christianity. This affects the lives of the villagers in ways they could not anticipate, putting them at the mercy of creatures who only want to destroy them.
The characterizations in the book were really wonderful. Each person had complex motivations and interactions with one another. Where they stood with regards to the change in faith was extremely complicated. At the forefront is Vasya, a young woman tied to the Old Gods, and as a result finds herself at odds with an increasingly suspicious village. Vasya is a real gem of a character. She is bold, impulsive, courageous, impatient and loving. She is motivated by her love of her family and her fierce independence.
Vasya did not see. She let the necklace go. She leaned forward. “All my life,” she said, “I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come’. I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I mut be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of this life appointed me. Please. Please, let me help you.
How can you help but love her when you hear her talk like that! It’s all about freedom. The freedom to make her own choices in life, or even the freedom to lay down that life if need be. Freedom is what we see in the old magic, which you can use only if you allow things be as they are and not force them to be how you want them to be. Even if doing so is a little dangerous. The old magic has a freedom that is in opposition to the new religion of the land which is focused on controlling the people and hammering the world into it’s image. This is a remarkable book. At once a really good, somewhat scary folktale and an intriguing look at the world. I loved it. I fully recommend it.
Bonus Link: Here is a website that not only sells Russian craft merchandise but has a good bunch of the Russian folk tales. If you’re reading this book you may want to look some of these up.
Song for this book: I had a hard time with this one. I picked a Russian songs early on in my reading, but found I needed something with a certain wild, rustic feel. So I went with Jig of Life, an Irish song by Kate Bush. It matches best in emotional content but not in location. “Well, ain’t that a geographical oddity!”