Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale

I was up late last night, desperately drinking in the last hundred pages of The Bear and the Nightingale. I didn't want to stay up late on a Sunday night, but halfway through the book I could no longer pull away from its pages. I had to keep reading.

Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale takes place in medieval Russia, in a small village at the edge of Russia’s biting wilderness. Our heroine is Vasilisa, a loveable, wild girl who’s spirit cannot be broken by the powerful forces of medieval society—whether that's a new religion, her gender, or her unusual connection to the spirits and creatures of folklore.

Every page is filled with the elegance of a fairytale. Every place, season, and event is filled with subtle but powerful magic. And, as you can probably tell—I loved it.

Here is the official synopsis:

At 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.

What immediately drew me to the book was the folklore. Fantasy is one of my favourite genres, yes, and I enjoy fairy tales, but what really cinched it for me was that I’d  been listening Russian folk tales on the Myths and Legends Podcast. Having heard stories featuring the likes of Koschei the Deathless and the Firebird, I was eager to dive into the fascinating world of Russian folklore once again. I was not disappointed!

The Bear and the Nightingale is a slow-paced book, but it picks up around halfway through. The characters are well-written and unique, with Vasya being an immediate favourite; but there a host of other characters, human and non-human, to fall in love with as well.

The writing is beautiful throughout and I had such a wonderful time as a reader, particularly as the story drew to a close. It was exactly what I wanted in a cold, February read, when the snow is still falling and the thought of a giant, medieval kitchen oven gives me the warm fuzzies. Now if only I had a little domovoi to chat with and help mend my clothes...

The Bear and the Nightingale is everything you would want in a book rich in myth and folklore and would highly recommend it to anyone interested!

4.5/5 stars.



PS: I'll be picking up the second book in the trilogy, The Girl in the Tower, sometime soon in anticipation of the August 2018 release of The Winter of the Witch.