The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden has been an absolute joy to read.
Trust me without reading this entire review (although that is pretty counterintuitive and runs against the entire reason of this blog post)that this book and the trilogy in general, is an absolute treat to read.
Not only is this trilogy an amazing beginner fantasy series, but has magic, witchcraft, love, loyalty, family, war, Russian folklore, and so much snow it takes you to a literary Winterland. And for someone who lives in a country (Oman) that doesn’t know what Winter is, I am all for it.
The Bear and the Nightingale is the first book of The Winternight trilogy that takes inspiration from Russian folklore and is set in the 14th century. During this period you have the Golden Horde (the Mongols), the Tatars (Turks), and Russian Boyars(aristocrats maybe), and the story is set in this historical background with a fantasy spin.
“There was a time, not long ago
When flowers grew all year
When days were long
And nights star-strewn
And men lived free from fear”
As so the story of The Bear and The Nightingale follows the family of a young Vasilisa Petronova who is the youngest among her 5 siblings, and lives in a remote village called Lesnaya Zemlya. Her father Pyotr is a lord of the village, and his wife Marina was the daughter of the Grand Prince of Moscow, who sadly passes away when Vasilisa is born.
“All my life,” she said, “I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.”
However, Vasya’s birth and her mother’s death isn’t a tragedy per say, as Vasya carries within her special powers through which she can see the domovoi that reside and protect homes, buildings, and other places. In order to placate the domovoi people leave offerings in the form of bread, milk etc
“Will you tell her? asked the mare. “Everything?” the demon said. “Of bears and sorcerers, spells made of sapphire and a witch that lost her daughter? No, of course not. I shall tell her as little as possible. And hope that it is enough.”
But times are changing and with Christianity taking over, the domovoi are losing their existence. Meanwhile, Vasya’s family is also undergoing change as her father tries to do what he can to secure the future of his kids, including her older sister Olga, and finding a second wife for himself. On a trip to Moscow he manages to get most of his errands done, until he meets a stranger who hands him a talisman specifically for Vasya.
“Nothing changes, Vasya. Things are, or they are not. Magic is forgetting that something ever was other than as you willed it.”
While that encounter greatly disturbs him, he tries his best to avoid giving it to her. But unknowing to him, that talisman necklace has a connection to Vasya’s powers and will save her family and the village when evil hits the village.
“It is a cruel task, to frighten people in God’s name.”
And so, when a beautiful priest comes to Lesnaya Zemlya who believes God speaks to him tries everything in his power to turn the village against Vasya, despite clearly being spellbound by her beauty. The destruction of the villagers and her loved ones compels Vasya to follow the folklore tales her nanny Dunya would tell her, and make sacrifices that cost her dearly.
“I do not understand “damned.” You are. And because you are, you can walk where you will, into peace, oblivion, or pits of fire, but you will always choose.”
Ultimately, evil is released in the form of the Bear (a tale to scare children) who causes the dead to rise, and can only be tamed by the Winter King and Vasya’s death of her own choosing.
“Before the end, you will pluck snowdrops at midwinter, die by your own choosing, and weep for a nightingale.”
And that my friends is my shoddy attempt at trying not to spoil the book while giving enough substance to the plot summary that does justice to it.
I clearly suck at summarising stories without giving spoilers away but with The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden there are so many elements to this story that you’ll still be able to enjoy it. This book had me hooked from page one! And the character of Vasya is one of my favourite female leads I’ve come across in Fantasy stories.
She reminded me so much of Vin from the Mistborn series, and Circe the Greek goddess witch from Circe by Madeline Miller. I was in awe of Vasya constantly, reading how she was trying to handle being a kid yet containing so much power. Her loyalty to her family and their safety truly makes her a selfless character, and there were times I just couldn’t help but sigh on how everyone was trying to contain her spirit.
Most importantly, I loved the historical setting of 14th century Russia, their traditional ways, and it felt something out of a Tolstoy novel. The Bear and the Nightingale is very magical story full of darkness and light, love and betrayal, adventure and action. Add in folklore and you’ve got a story that will be on your mind for years to come.
If this book ever gets adapted I will literally watch it again and again, because I know it will bring to life the beauty of the wilderness and snow that are so much a part of this story.
Onto the basics:
- Rating: 5.0/5.0
- Favourite Quote: “We who live forever can know no courage, nor do we love enough to give our lives.”
- Should you read it: if you book sets in Russian and Fantasy, then this is the perfect book for you.
- Would I read it again: I honestly cannot wait to re-read it.
- Reader Level: Very easy to understand. The author also provides a key to understand the Russian words she uses, at the end of the book.
Till next time,