The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden is a book that I’ve been seeing everywhere for a long time. I’ve wanted to read it forever. But for some reason it took me ages to pick it up. Then I saw it for sale in a little book store in Thailand when I was on holiday and it seemed like the time was finally right to buy it. So, I did.
I don’t know why I hesitated to read this book. I’ve always loved books based on fairy tales, folklore, myths or legends. Perhaps it was the Russian setting. I’ve struggled in the past with books set in Russia, usually because of the character names. I find with Russian names that the characters will have one name and then a nickname. This can make it confusing to keep track of who is who. But I do love a Russian setting with all that ice and snow.
The Bear and the Nightingale is a story based on Russian folklore with a stream of magic running through it. It tells the tale of a young girl named Vasya, the youngest in a noble family who live on the edge of the wilderness in northern Russia. She is wild and unruly and her mother died giving birth to her.
Vasya can see things that other people can’t see like the spirits of the woods and the household who her people leave offerings out for. But there are dark forces gathering in the woods who threaten to destroy Vasya’s village and her family. Further problems arise when a new priest comes to live in the village and when Vasya gets a new stepmother who is terrified of all the things that Vasya can see.
I’ll leave the plot there to avoid spoilers. The Bear and the Nightingale was a beautifully written book… BUT it took me a while to get into it. I just had trouble getting into the rhythm of the writing. So, it was a slow start for me. But once I got into the writing, the Russian names and phrases and the plot, I felt myself swept away by the story. It’s a very lyrical, wintry read. As I read it, I felt the cold and the frost. This book was more like a long, literary fairy tale than a page turner.
I don’t know if I will read book two and three of this series. I was happy enough reading The Bear and the Nightingale, but I don’t feel compelled to rush out and buy the other books. If you have read The Girl in the Tower and The Winter of the Witch and highly recommend them, please let me know.
Here’s a tip — there’s a glossary of Russian terms in the back of the novel. I only discovered this when I got to the end. It would have been helpful knowing this as I read it. The glossary gives explanations for the Russian terms used throughout the novel.
Verdict: A beautiful, wintry folklore tale set in northern Russia.