The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the NightingaleInformation

Goodreads: The Bear and the Nightingale
Series: The Winternight Trilogy #1
Source: Library
Published: January 10, 2016

Official Summary

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.

Review

I had heard a lot about how beautiful and moving The Bear and the Nightingale was before deciding to pick it up, so I had some high expectations.  I am always looking for books that are different, lyrical, and just all-around enjoyable.  In the end, however, I was not quite as impressed with this book as many other readers have been.  Although the characters are interesting, the plot is unevenly paced, and I guess I’m also a bit fatigued by mainstream literature representing religious leaders as corrupt social climbers and religious followers as fools.

The main two Christian characters in the novel are,  admittedly, extremely interesting.  One is a charismatic priest who was building an almost cult following by painting skillful icons,  annoyed at being sent to the back woods of Russia until he realizes he might have a calling to stamp out the vestiges of pagan practices on the estate.  The other is a young woman, sincerely devout, troubled by the fact she seems demons everywhere that practically no one else can.  Now, the intersection of Christianity and folk religion is a fascinating topic, and I love to see it explored in literature; however, I think Arden missed some opportunities to be as nuanced as she could be here, as the book takes the hard line that the folk beliefs are real, and anyone following Christianity is apparently a nut. I suppose I would have liked more subtlety in the exploration of how these two belief systems can interact and whether they can survive together.

Our heroine, Vasilisa, holds firm to the old beliefs; her primary talent seems to be having a hereditary skill to see mystical creatures and find out what they want–generally, offerings.  On one hand, I admire her tenacity and her strength in trying to hold her estate together as the evil priest and the evil stepmother attempt to stamp out the old ways.  On the other hand, it’s easy to believe in protective house spirits when you can see and talk to them, so I think the faith of people who can’t see them, like Vasilisa’s nurse, is more interesting.

My main issue, however, is with the pacing of the novel.  The beginning is slow, which is fine; I think the acceptance of slowness is frequently one of the dividing characters of adult books vs. young adult books.  However, it is frustrating that 90% of the book is slow, and when the author gets to the climax, the main battle, the thing she has been building up to, it’s over in practically an instant.  More time could have been spent making this climatic scene matter.

The Bear and the Nightingale is charming at parts and thoughtful and lyrical. It just didn’t capture my imagination or my attention quite as much as I had hoped.

3 Stars Briana

21 thoughts on “The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

  1. Books, Vertigo and Tea says:

    Ah, we are on completely opposite ends of the spectrum with Arden. I think this trilogy will easily be in my top 5 when complete. I do agree the pacing is slow in this one. It is very atmospheric.

    I did enjoy her approach to the folklore and Christianity. It worked for me after all that read before picking this and Vassa up. I had to brush up on some history and folklore because I honestly knew little. I did not find it as so much of an attack or jab (sorry lack of words at the moment), but more or a representation of the challenges of not conforming with the new and being able to let go of the beliefs viewed as dated. But in The Girl in the Tower I feel she certainly redeems some of the issues you might of had in this area 😉 That is all I can say.

    I love reading conflicting reviews and gaining some new insight. Very well written 😊 Thanks for this. I hope you enjoy the next read more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Briana says:

      I think part of my issue may have been that I read this book fairly quickly after reading Hild, and both books seem to take the approach that religion is a bunch of bunk. (Though in Hild’s defense, apparently both the pagan religion and the new Christianity are made up garbage, whereas the house spirits and such are obviously real in The Bear and the Nightingale. No one said Christianity isn’t true here, I suppose, but it’s harder to tell without the concrete evidence of a saint apparition or something!) I did like that Vasilisa’s stepmother is apparently very sincere about her religion, however, and is clearly trying her best even though her efforts end up being kind of misguided in the context of the story.

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      • Books, Vertigo and Tea says:

        There are some religious members who play a larger role in the sequel that cannot of balance out some of what you are mentioning, but it is hard to elaborate without spoilers 😉 I only recently started exploring Russian folklore and some of the older beliefs, so I think it was a refreshing take for me to find a story that actually chose to feature these elements as reality. Now I must remember to explore Hild at some point 😊

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  2. Sarah says:

    I’ve also heard lots of hype about this book and have it on my wishlist. However I didn’t realise religion played such a huge role, I thought it was more Russian fairy stories – so not sure now how I feel about this. And disappointed to hear you found the pacing so slow. Like you I don’t mind slow starts but I hate dragging myself through an entire book only to have it end suddenly. Think I may give this one a miss – great, honest review!

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    • Briana says:

      I also didn’t realize there would be so much religion! I get that, historically, Christianity and more pagan/traditional beliefs were not always seen to be at odds, which can seem weird to us today, but I still didn’t see it coming in the book, especially based on other reviews I’ve read.

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  3. karen blue says:

    I gave this book 4 stars. I found it moved at an awkward, and yes SLOW, pace. I did enjoy how different it was from everything I see getting attention in the fantasy realm. I also enjoyed seeing the Russian folklore in action. You are right though, it had a lot of religion. Great review!

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  4. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Interesting point about the intersection of Christianity and paganism- I guess I saw it as more of an exploration of folk lore rather than philosophically challenging the new religion. I feel like that’s an interesting topic to explore- though perhaps for a different book 😉 . Shame it didn’t capture your imagination as much as you’d hoped though!

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  5. saraletourneau says:

    I’m not sure if you’re planning to continue the series… but having just finished the sequel The Girl in the Tower, I can tell you it’s more evenly paced and exciting throughout the story. So maybe you might like that one more…?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Bridget says:

    I just ordered this novel and its sequel purely for the pretty covers because, well, I have no self-control!!! D:

    Bummer that you didn’t enjoy it as much as you were expecting. Honestly I had no idea religion was even a theme in this story (apparently I didn’t read the synopsis very well), but I actually find that aspect fascinating and I hope the author writes it well.

    Perhaps in this novel the author decided to write with a more negative slant toward Christianity because Christianity often did stamp out minor pagan religions, but in this case she turned it on its head where the opposite is true in her story??? I guess I’ll find out when I read it. I do hope I enjoy it because I’d hate to have spent money on it for nothing….. :O

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      The covers are really gorgeous! And everyone seems to have loved this book except me, so I hope you like it, as well!

      The religion aspect is interesting. I think my personal problem is that I read a couple books in a row that took a “Ha! Look how fake and hypocritical Christianity is!” stance, and it got kind of old. Although one of the brothers joins a monastery and I think the second book is partially about him, so maybe the author takes a different stance in the sequel.

      Liked by 1 person

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