The Bear and the Nightingale is a magical tale set in medieval times, that is based off Russian fairy tales. The novel tells the story of protagonist Vasilisa, who unlike the rets of her family can see, and interacts with, the household spirits. When her father remarries a stern, city-bred and devoutly religious stepmother, who forbids the family to honour the household spirits which protect their home from evil, things quickly begin to unravel. This novel has an enchanting storyline and fantastic characters, and it truly is a wonderful Winter read.
I absolutely loved the plot in this novel. Katherine Arden incorporates many traditional Russian fairy tales into the story, the novel opening with Vasilisa and her siblings’ nanny telling the children the story of Frost, a Winter demon, and as the novel progresses these fairy tales begin to become more than merely stories. This was incredibly magical to read about, and also really interesting as it allowed me to be introduced to some Russian fairy tales that I had never heard of before. When Vasilisa’s stepmother stops the family from honouring the household spirits, the crops in the village begin to fail and evil creatures from the nearby woods draw nearer, and Vasilisa is swept up in an adventure that requires her to call on dangerous gifts that she has always had to conceal. I found the plot in this novel to be gripping and exciting, and I always love a magical twists to propel a storyline forwards.
This novel has the most beautiful, wintery setting I believe I have ever read about: set on the edge of some Russian wilderness, the Winters there last most of the year, and the author creates wonderful, sparkling white imagery throughout. The setting also created a cosiness whilst reading the novel, as Vasilisa and her family are often surrounded by the fire in their wooden cabin. Not only is the setting of this novel stunning, Katherine Arden manages to create some wonderful atmospheres as she writes, really pulling on the reader’s senses to evoke not only different sights but also smells and tastes. I would not say the writing in this novel is the best I have ever read and I think the author certainly has room to grow in this area, but it was certainly extremely strong, especially for a debut novel. This novel is certainly a brilliant Winter read, and I would urge people to pick it up at this time of year if it interests you.
I really enjoyed reading about the characters in this novel. Vasilisa was, by far, my favourite character: she is a strong-willed, subversive female protagonist which I always enjoy and appreciate, but especially in this setting where, due to the time, female gender-roles were particularly oppressive. Vasilisa does not want to follow the path that has been laid out for her: she does not want to prioritise her appearance in a bid to marry young, but far prefers riding the family horses as her brothers do, and going out exploring the nearby woods. Not only is Vasilisa required to be the heroine of this story, saving the village from evil forces, she also has to resist these pressures from society generally and her step-mother in particular: Vasilisa’s stepmother is not only strict about the family’s religious practices, she is also set on taming her rebellious daughter, and wishes to either marry her off or send her away to a convent. Vasilisa is constantly faced with difficulties in this novel, and I think she overcomes them admirably. I also loved reading about Vasilis’a famly, especially her nanny, Dunya, and her brother, Alyosha, who was a wonderful big brother figure. While I was reading this novel I did feel that I would have liked to have got to know Vasilisa’s siblings more than I did – they could have benefitted from some more character development – however there is still room for this in the other two novels in this trilogy.
Overall, this is an extremely magical and enchanting novel that will completely sweep you up into its plot and make you feel brilliantly cosy. Not only is the plot exciting, the characters – both magical and not – are great, and I would highly recommend this novel to someone wanting either a new fantasy series or just a wonderful, Wintery read. I will be eagerly awaiting the next instalment in the series!