Review: The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden

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, an elderly servant tells stories of sorcery, folklore and the Winter King to the children of the family, tales of old magic frowned upon by the church.

But for the young, wild Vasya these are far more than just stories. She alone can see the house spirits that guard her home, and sense the growing forces of dark magic in the woods…

The Bear and the Nightingale 2

On paper The Bear and the Nightingale seemed like everything I could long for in a novel: a fantasy, fairy tale set in Medieval Russia with a magical and mysterious heroine… Unfortunately, in reality the book left me wanting for a little more to sink my teeth into.

I think my main problem with the book was the pace. It felt a little like after 300+ pages not that much had happened, and although I understand that everything is being set up for the rest of the trilogy, I found myself longing for an escape from the stuffy Russian house in the wilderness.

I also have some reservations about the main character, Vasya, and her portrayal as the enchanting and otherworldly protagonist. Is it just me, or is there a certain literary trope in the fantasy genre of a female character who is misunderstood by her peers, gifted with magical qualities, and ultimately depicted as a more-ethereal-than-you wildling? (Don’t get me started on the word ‘feisty’ too!) I think I was just hoping for a little more within her character, whatever that may be. Something unexpected and surprising.

Anyway, I’m probably just being a little over-picky, and there were certainly plenty of aspects I liked about The Bear and the Nightingale, including discovering a brand new mythology I knew little about. The wintery Russian setting lent itself perfectly to fires and fairy tales, frost demons and an unnerving sense of something sinister in the woods. I also loved the familial relationships of the book, and the way in which Arden explores the sense of duty, loyalty and alienation that operates within the family and their village.

Despite my misgivings and criticisms, I’m nonetheless looking forward to returning to the Winternight trilogy and seeing what the next instalment, The Girl in the Tower, will bring. I just feel that in a novel similar to Naomi Novik’s Uprooted (which I loved), it felt as if Novik’s magical Eastern European story was perhaps a little more fully-formed and original. Feel free to disagree and let me know why I’m wrong!

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