The Bear and the Nightingale
by Katherine Arden
336pp (Hardcover)
My Rating: 9/10
Amazon Rating: 4.5/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.17/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.13/5

The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden’s debut novel and the first book in the Winternight trilogy, is Slavic-folklore-inspired historical fantasy set in northern Rus’ during the fourteenth century. This phenomenal book has made quite a mark since its publication early this year: it was a Goodreads Choice Award finalist in both the Best Fantasy and Debut Author categories, Amazon selected it as the best science fiction and fantasy book of 2017, and it has begun appearing on numerous best of the year lists (which I am confident will include my own since, even though very little of 2017 is left, it’s still one of my two favorite new releases!).

Though The Bear and the Nightingale is primarily Vasilisa’s story, it begins before her birth, soon after her mother realizes a fifth child will be joining their family. When she tells her husband the news, she also tells him that their next child will be a girl with the gifts of her own mother, a mysterious woman whose grace and beauty captured the heart and hand of the Grand Prince of Moscow—and who was rumored to be a witch.

Vasya’s mother does not survive childbirth, and for years, the grieving lord never so much as thinks of remarrying. However, after six-year-old Vasya becomes lost in the woods and is found insisting that she saw a gnarled old tree and a one-eyed man that are nowhere to be found, one of her older brothers convinces their father that a wild girl like she must have a mother. He travels to Moscow in search of a wife and returns wed to another Grand Prince’s daughter, a religious young woman named Anna who had hoped to spend the rest of her days in a convent: for only within the walls of a church can she hide from the devils.

Like Vasya, Anna has the second sight, which allows her to see the domovoi and other spirits. While Vasya accepts them as a part of her world and befriends them, her frightened stepmother does all that she can to avoid them. Anna’s only comfort can be found in the teachings of a charismatic young priest from Moscow, who further instills terror of the old ways into the people of the village—who also come to fear Vasya herself, not realizing that her unique sight may be all that can save them…

The Bear and the Nightingale is the first book I read in 2017, and as the year nears its end, it’s still one of the very best books I read this year. It’s taken me a long time to review this one simply because I don’t believe I can adequately describe this gem of a novel and all that it encompasses. The writing is lovely: it’s not dense, yet the smallest of details bring to life both the real-world setting of the wintry wilderness and the fairy tale aspects of the book with its spirits and Morozko the frost-demon. It’s about many things, especially family and humanity, and it follows a heroine who refuses to be anything but who she is on her journey from childhood into young adulthood—but most of all, I appreciate Katherine Arden’s mature approach to ideas that are often portrayed as clearly black and white and how she further enhanced this by making even the least sympathetic of her characters understandable.

From the plot description, it may sound as though this is yet another novel about the evils of organized religion and Christianity in particular. Though it does acknowledge atrocities done by the Church and focus on the conflict between Christianity and the older ways with a lot of empathy for those who held to the latter, I also didn’t read it as being completely anti-religion. One of the more compelling characters is Vasya’s older brother, Sasha, a pious young man who also struggles to carve his own path against his father’s wishes. When he accompanies his father to Moscow, Sasha travels to meet a monk reputed to be a humble servant rather than obsessed with wealth and position, and he decides to become a monk as well—even though this decision causes a rift between him and his father. Showing some earnest men of faith allows Father Konstantin to stand on his own as a flawed representative of the Church rather than a representative of all of Christianity. Additionally, Vasya herself never seems to be rebelling against their religion: she doesn’t appear to have an issue with it coexisting alongside the spirits she sees.

In general, Vasya doesn’t come across as particularly rebellious or mischievous but simply someone who remains steadfastly who she is despite society’s disapproval. She loves to be outdoors, she enjoys horseback riding (and is more interested in fine lord’s horses than fine lords themselves), and she sees no reason to meekly lower her eyes as is expected of good Christian girls. Though she’s uniquely special and the only one in her household to reject feminine norms, it never seems as though she’s supposed to be superior to girls who choose otherwise. Vasya cares for her two sisters, and just as she accepts herself, she accepts them for who they are.

I found it incredibly refreshing to read about a heroine who did not doubt herself even though many others did, as well as one who had a caring relationship with her half-sister despite her stepmother’s constant attempts to make Vasya feel inferior to her own daughter. The sibling relationships are especially wonderful and are one of my favorite parts of the story, especially the closeness between Vasya and her youngest brother, Alyosha. They basically grew up together since Alyosha is only three years older than Vasya, and he is the one who best understands her and stands up for her the most.

The most villainous characters (other than the main mythical villain) are not particularly likable but they’re very human. Anna is terrible to Vasya, and it was clear that much of this was coming from a place of terror and unhappiness. She was forced into a marriage she didn’t want, and Vasya is a constant reminder of the frightening ‘devils’ she tries to escape from as much as possible. Though Father Konstantin is not at all sympathetic since he brings most of his problems upon himself, the pride, self-loathing, and shame that drive him are palpable.

The Bear and the Nightingale is excellent in nearly every way, but it is slower paced and somewhat meandering. The pacing didn’t especially bother me since it was an absorbing tale regardless, plus it was stronger because of the extra insight into the different characters. However, I did feel that it took a long time to build up to the bigger folktale-related conflict that was the meat of the plot and that the climax was over rather quickly in comparison to the rest.

It’s no wonder that The Bear and the Nightingale is commonly being lauded as one of the best books of the year: it’s absolutely magical. It’s wonderfully atmospheric, and the beautiful writing and characterization work together to create a subtly different type of book. The Bear and the Nightingale is an incredible novel, especially astonishing considering it is the author’s debut. I’m looking forward to finding out what happens next in the newly released sequel, The Girl in the Tower, and the conclusion, The Winter of the Witch (coming in August 2018).

My Rating: 9/10

Where I got my reading copy: Finished copy from the publisher.

Read the First 50 Pages from The Bear and the Nightingale on Unbound Worlds

Read Katherine Arden’s Women in SF&F Month Essay on Heroines