The Bear and The Nightingale as a debut novel by Katherine Arden has garnered an overwhelmingly positive reception and with good reason. There are many reasons to put this modernized tale of the Russian myths of Father Frost on your To-Read list. First and foremost because it will leave you with a sense of lighting a candle in the dark, both emotionally and intellectually. In fact, if I were to make a list of books to read as a balm against the growing forces of ignorance and hate in the world The Bear and The Nightingale would be on it.
The Bear and the Nightingale cover
The quick plot:
Vasya Petrovna grows up the strange youngest daughter of a Russian rural lord. She inherits the power to see and speak with the mythical creatures of the hearth and forest from her mother who died giving birth to her. When her father remarries it is to another witch like Vasya’s mother. Only Anna Ivanova has been told her whole life that the creatures she sees are not truly there and anyone who can see such things must be looking upon the minions of Hell. Terrified of her own gifts she seeks refuge in the church any way she can and lashes out at her stepdaughter who sees the same creatures without fear or shame. Her prayers seem answered when the church sends the politically vexing Father Konstantin Nikonovich to minister Pyotr Vladimirovich lands. Wanting to be out of the sticks and back in the rarified civilization of Moscow or St. Petersburg where the highborn worship his talent as a painter, Father Konstantin resolves to instill the fear of God in the deplorable heathens quickly and particularly in the strange wild daughter who captivates him with her fearlessness and grace.
But the lands of Pyotr Vladimirovich face an old threat one that feeds on fear. And as the people grow to fear the shadows of the dark with every sermon that old foe grows fat and strong until even the Winter King’s bonds hold the mad Bear no more and Vasya is all that stands between her village and unending nights of sharp teeth and death clawed hands.
What specifically was squeetastically good or bad about the book?
Arden’s scenes and ambiance are as tactile as the mind can make them. With very few strokes she makes every scene come alive in a way that made me marvel. The threat of the winter cold is a biting and dreadful menace while the smell of wet wool drying by the fire woke memories of winters growing up and skiing trips to Norway.
Arden makes no bones about the horrible aspects of life in rural medieval times. Neither about the necessities that facilitates the violence, such as the constant threat of starvation and the killing cold of every winter, nor of the form that frustration and fear takes with beatings, getting women married or stabled in convents as a means of ensuring their safety from those iniquities or from vicious rumor or the ignorant fears of the superstitious. When you are faced with a choice of dying of cold and hunger, early death in childbirth, life in prison in a convent or being stoned by freaked out neighbors what is your choice really?
But the barrage of threats that was everyday life then also makes for strong familiar bonds. Something we know less of today. And Arden does not forget those in the picture she paints.
All the gnarly creatures
The wealth of creatures that tumble out of hearth fires or lurk in village ponds could have been overwhelming or even ludicrous but Arden makes them both matter-of-fact while still retaining their magic and mystique. Vasya treads the boundary between the seen and the unseen as well as the “rational” order imposed by the church on one side and the myths and powers of old on the other.
The Russian words and names
Leshy, rusalka, domovoi. Not only did retaining the original Russian creature names (as much as possible) lend a powerful flavor to the story and help root it in its setting in the Rus but tracking down the origins of each has been just a fantastical trek into old magical things of root and water and stone. I’ll admit that with game likes Thea the Awakening and the Witcher series fresh in memory I already had some of those names and the creatures they referred to more or less tacked down. It helped.
The understated romance
In the old tales, the girl meets the monster and shows herself worthy and the monster returns her to her father with a handsome dowry for a wedding. Then presumably she goes off to marry some other bloke. After all what else is she for? The powerful creature Vasya allies herself with against the Bear understands how that situation is supposed to play out. But Vasya is nothing if not a woman who treads her own path and to hell with rules. And even demon kings can learn something new.
Folklore versus Christianity
Viewed rationally that choice can seem like frying pans and fires but in stories, oh it is such a pleasure to read a tale where old magic beats priests and sermons! This is also a setup that brings back memories of tales I grew up with. In my case, they were stories of Norse religious beliefs outdoing those of the invading southern religions but both the gist and the particular flavor of that conflict are the same.
What really gets me is how on one side you have the religion that allows for only one god and on the other a belief system that allows for a multitude of gods and spirits in an inclusive atmosphere of the more the merrier. The Bear And The Nightingale reminded me powerfully of that mentality which I fell in love with in The Long Ships by Franz G. Bengtsson which, while criticized for romanticizing Vikings life and the era, offers a tremendously good and warm tale steeped in the attitude of good-natured violence and a practical and grounded approach to gods and belief:
Beware the dead. Fear first, then fire, then famine. Your fault. We had faith in God before you came, and faith in our house-spirits also, and all was well.
~Katherine Arden, The Bear and The Nightingale.
The strong female protagonist
This is, after all, a story about a woman defying the role the patriarchy has planned for her. I couldn’t be me and not love that. Especially since her defiance is committed with such serene fearlessness. She is and by being she dares anyone to voice why she shouldn’t be.
I don’t want to tell you why because that would spoil it for you but that was my favorite kind of climactic confrontation. Some may find it trite and over done in adventure stories and movies but IDGAF that’s my kind of favorite stuff right there.
The story has a fairly long build-up, possibly longer than necessary but in a way, it added to the feel of this being in some ways an old story itself. I think losing that ramp up would lessen the tale but if you know yourself to put down a book that doesn’t put you into the action right away then this isn’t a story for you.
The Bear And The Nightingale is a dark and adult take on fairy tales which evokes the feel of what those fairy tales were told for in the first place. It melds a view into medieval Russia with the supernatural aspects of folktale myth from stories that have traveled across cultures to become something we consider for children only.
We know that tales like Cinderella and Snow White had dark and bloody origins. I grew up with the version of Cinderella where her stepmother had her daughters heels and toes cut off in order to fit the glass slipper. And, while not a folk tale, I know full well the true tragic story of the little mermaid as it was written by my countryman H.C. Andersen.
There also is something of a consensus now that the original folk tales were crafted as stories that taught valuable lessons or served as warnings. Don’t go against the accepted wisdom or ill will befall you, stay on the path little girl, your lot may not be great but there are wolves in the forest waiting to pounce on women who stray too far into nature.
The Grimm brothers, when they gathered up the folk tales of the Germanic people specifically to create a mythos that might bind disparate regions together, cut heels and toes on those stories to make them do just that; serve as teaching tools for cultural and religious propaganda. But before they got their hands on them, the stories grew out of a wealth of different purposes.
Katherine Arden evokes that pre-Grimm feel with her well-crafted tale. The story certainly has an obvious morale but it is one anchored in humanitarian principles rather than in a particular ill-fitting corset of Christian customs. While some monsters are as monstrous on the inside as they are on the outside this rule does not hold true for all. Hell, I love the story for the simple reason that Katherine aligns us firmly on the side of the village witch and makes no bones about her strangeness or scary powers. In fact, Arden celebrates them.
This is a story about the non-conformist woman pitted against societal norms in a repressive patriarchy. Only this time the woman has help in the shape of every gnarly house nisse and troll and ettin out of our shared Indo-European roots.
In fact, it was something of an eye-opener just how much my nordic folk myth roots look like her description of Russian folk myths. Sure they have different names but we still speak of leaving food for the spirits of the house or joke about nisser stealing the missing sock. Perhaps those similarities made me feel right at home in Katherine’s tale and made the fact that this fairy tale is a fresh modern take on those old stilted ones makes both it and them seem much more approachable in a way.
One last thing. This is not a reason to read the book but I really love that blue cover!
The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Ardent and published January 17th, 2017 by Del Rey is available from