The Bear and the Nightingale #1
by Katherine Arden
Published on January 10, 2017 by Del Rey
Genres: Adult, Fantasy, Historical
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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.
Everything about this book screamed READ ME. The cover. The synopsis. All of it. So obviously going into The Bear and the Nightingale I had a few expectations as well as an eagerness to see if it was truly as amazing as it looked/sounded. While it lived up to my hopes and dreams on some fronts, others didn’t quite make the cut.
The first thing I noticed was the writing. Descriptive, vivid, beautiful. It ebbed and flowed in a way that I immediately associated with a master storyteller. I loved that the story surrounds Russian folklore because it’s not something I’ve seen often in fiction and was quite refreshing. This isn’t some epic tale common to fantasy or a young adult adventure. It’s a fairy tale that Arden breathed life into to bring something new to the world.
That may sound flowery in the way I wrote it but this book evokes such an unusual kind of storytelling that isn’t in my usual reading and deserves it all.
As for the story itself, I enjoyed the multiple perspectives. It’s a fine line and sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I think Arden pulled it off splendidly. She addresses several themes throughout, with the core idea of family permeating the entire book.
Now, the writing was good. The story had that magical element that made it seem more than just a book. But I wasn’t completely hooked.
The pacing of this book is SO slow. I waited and waited for something to happen but it didn’t. The Bear and the Nightingale was slow going which, for the level of detail in the world isn’t surprising. I’ve had this issue with books in the past where it takes half the book to set everything up before the pace picks up but this one felt like it had an unusually long wait, especially for the first in a series. I put it down several times in favor of more action-packed reads. It’s a personal preference, for sure, and I wouldn’t let the pacing dissuade you from reading this one.
My other issue came with the characters. I never felt excited by their adventures, their own stories. I felt the disconnect as I would when being told a story versus living it through the words of an author. While Arden’s writing style is beautiful, it didn’t entice me to fall into the world with full abandonment or to grow attached to the characters.
It’s hard to really summarize my feelings about The Bear and the Nightingale because while I wanted to love it and some of the elements were truly magical, the primary things I look for in a book — the hook, a connection to the characters — just weren’t there. It’s one that took far too long to pick up and just didn’t work for me, but if those things don’t bother you then I would highly recommend this title. This one definitely comes down to reading preferences!