“The Bear and the Nightingale” by Katherine Arden

This was one of my most anticipated reads of 2017. I was so eager to read it, but for some reason, I delayed doing so until later in the year. I was also convinced I would love it. I’d read/listened to a few interviews with Arden and loved what she said about her book and the books that have inspired her over the years. It all made me excited for The Bear and the Nightingale. But maybe I was too excited and eager because when I did read the novel, I thought it underwhelming and didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would.

Quick summary:

The Bear and the Nightingale is the first novel in a YA fantasy trilogy seeped in Russian history and folklore. It’s about a girl, Vasilia “Vasya” Petrovna, who was born with the fabled powers her grandmother possessed. Vasya can communicate with spirits, fey creatures who protect the hearth and home and help make her father’s lands prosperous.

Vasya’s father is a boyar, a royal who’s similar to a prince, but his lands lay in northern Russia, where winters can be hard and harsh. Though affluent, not many people live on his lands and I got the impression that he oversees a small village of people who help to maintain his lands. Vasya is the youngest of her siblings. Her mother died during childbirth, convinced that finally she has given birth to a child possessing the fabled powers of her maternal line.

Vasya grows to be a free-spirited young girl, which was not accepted at the time. Women were expected to be tied to hearth and home, not go off adventuring in forests. Believing that a motherly figure would help tame Vasya, her father goes to Moscow to find a new wife.

The new wife, Anna, is an extremely devout woman, a reaction to having similar abilities to Vasya: She’s also able to see the fey spirits, but she calls them demons. Anna is glad when a priest named Konstantin joins the village, hoping his presence can help eradicate the vile creatures she sees. The priest naïvely attempts to do this by convincing the villagers to put their faith in God rather than continue with their pagan beliefs, but Vasya realizes that if the villagers should stop believing in the fey, the village itself will not survive.

Vasya steadfastly makes the necessary sacrifices to protect her village, but soon learns that the struggle for the villagers’ belief in fey or God is but a veil obscuring a battle between two ancient spirits. (Goodreads)

My thoughts: (minor spoilers)

This is a good book and is one I would recommend though I didn’t enjoy it much and gave it a low star rating. Many who’ve read the story loved it and have marked it as one of their favorite novels of 2017 because of how atmospheric the story is. I agree with that point. You get a strong feeling of the setting such that though I read it during a fairly average fall season, I could easily imagine, and sometimes even thought I felt, a nip of the biting Russian winters described in the story. However, I wasn’t enchanted by the atmospheric quality of the story. It didn’t hold me spellbound, which is what I expected and hoped for when reading the book. I found it too easy to break from the story and would sometimes have to push myself to continue with it.

However, I do love the descriptions of the setting and call to the historical period it’s set in. I believe this is the first I’ve read a book set in medieval Russia. It’s obvious that Arden did a lot of research to give a sense of authenticity to the story. The world building is strong, and not for a moment did I doubt the presence of the fey spirits in the story’s real world or how they affect that world. I think this was helped along by how the story begins — with Dunya, the old woman who helps care for Vasya and her siblings, telling the story of Frost, which is personified in this story. I know just a bit of Russian history (mostly stuff about Rasputin and the Romonovs and weird, possibly false, facts about Catherine the Great) and nothing of Russian folklore, so I do not know to what extent the folklores mentioned in this story relate to real Russian folklores, but the mixing of folkloric elements in this fantasy story helped me to suspend belief and trust what Arden is doing.

The writing is decent, but I wasn’t mesmerized by it. Neither was I excited by the climax or much interested in what led up to the resolution. The battle parts weren’t fascinating and Vasya’s father helping to end it was quite underwhelming because I expected Vasya to do all that. There was a hint of romance, I guess, between Vasya and Morozko, but I think that’s debatable because I wasn’t convinced of their being any romance between them, though I suspected that there would be because this is a YA novel (well, I assume it is YA). The only part that drew some emotion from me was when Dunya died. I really liked her character and loved it when Vasya demands that Konstantin leave so Dunya could die in peace rather than fear.

Speaking of Dunya, I liked Vasya’s family life, before Anna and Konstantin joined the village. I loved the relationship Vasya had with her siblings and how close they all were and that Vasya was basically the annoying little sister always getting herself and sometimes others in trouble. It was sweet.

Another thing I liked is how Arden pitted belief in folklore against belief in God. Usually in stories like this, religion would be portrayed as evil, restrictive, and bad, but Arden does not include such a simple supposition of religion. Instead, she shows how much people’s way of life and ideas of self influence what they choose to believe and how they approach their beliefs.

The people in Vasya’s village did not total dismiss God before the priest Konstantin’s arrival. Instead, the people approached their belief in God by combining it with the pagan beliefs they and their ancestors had always adhered to. In doing so, they held on to the traditions that define their culture while exploring a religion they are told would benefit them, which ensured a happy, comfortable existence for the village. But when Konstantin arrives, the villagers are forced and bullied into believing in God.

Konstantin is an antagonist and an unlikable character, but I liked him because of how he functions in the story and what he represents. Through him, Arden portrays an ugly side of religion that promotes acceptance of God through faith in the church, or, to be more exact, the leaders of the church. Konstantin is so full of pride that he has confused and corrupted faith in God with promotion and worship of himself. He does not care for the villagers’ spiritual wellbeing as much as he thinks he does, but instead wants to scare them in submitting to him, revering him, worshiping him as if he were God, which is why Konstantin is both intrigued by and attracted to Vasya because she does not submit to him.

In comparing the two, Vasya and Konstantin, we see that Vasya, though she does not partake of religion, is the most devout of the two because she believes in her beliefs wholeheartedly and does not confuse it with her pride and neither is she afraid to sometimes question it. Vasya is another character I admire because of how strong willed and selfless she is. Vasya is willing protect her village even when they’d turned against her because of Konstantin’s bullying and preying upon their fears.

I hope that bit of the story, how people use and confuse belief in God with promotion of self, does not change. It’s my favorite bit of the story, if I should have a favorite part. And because of that, I’m interested to learn what will become of Sasha, one of Vasya’s brothers who went off to become a monk. Before doing so, their father told Sasha he had to renounce all claims to his inheritance. We’re told Sasha is doing well, but in this world where religion seems to be pitted against folklore, I wonder how Sasha handles that clash of beliefs. Because of my interest in this, and because I already had a copy, I plan to read the sequel, The Girl in the Tower, this year. My hope is that I’ll be enraptured by it as many readers were by The Bear and the Nightingale.

Overall: ★★☆☆☆ 1\2

A low rating, but that doesn’t mean the story isn’t good. It’s a decent read that many loved, but I’m just the oddball who didn’t like it much and since my star rating is mostly based on enjoyment, I scored it low.

Buy | Borrow | Bypass

I recommend the book, but I don’t think you need to own it. However, the U.K. cover is so beautiful that I was tempted to buy it.

27 thoughts on ““The Bear and the Nightingale” by Katherine Arden

  1. Great Review! And think I understand what you mean. Sometimes there are books that, despite having everything, simply do not mesmerize us they way they ought to. I had a similar reaction Cassandra Clare. The Bookstagram community raves about her and I really tried to get into her world building but it just didn’t click. I’ve learned to make peace with it.

    Still, the premise of fairy-tales vs. religion is something we ardently debate at home so I’m gonna give Arden a try.

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  2. Great review- definitely interesting to see some different thoughts on the book than just praise… 🙂 Some interesting thoughts around the religion aspect of the book!

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  3. Ah it’s a pity that this wasn’t for you, but fair enough. It’s good that you’d recommend it anyway, even if you didn’t enjoy it- I’ve had books like that. Konstantin was a really good character (well not good, but you get what I mean 😉 ) Great review!

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  4. What a shame this didn’t work for you. I really enjoyed it but I loved the atmosphere and the setting. I’m currently reading the second book and Sasha, so far, seems to be playing a key role so perhaps this one will work out better for you?
    Lynn 😀

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  5. Oh no. I hate having to push myself to finish a book. I’m having a similar issue with something I’m reading right now. It’s atmospheric but not easy to keep reading. Sigh.

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  6. I loved the book, but I have heard others bring up the same issues as you. It’s not exactly the most heart pounding read, but I did enjoy the atmosphere and the character study of Vasya. I’m glad to hear you’re thinking of giving the sequel a try, especially if you are curious about what happens to Sasha, he plays a big role in the second book and I think you’ll have all your questions answered 🙂

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    1. Awesome! I’m so interested in him. For some reason, I wasn’t much interested in Vasya though I like the mystery surrounding her. I’m curious to learn more about her grandmother too.

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  7. I’ve mostly read gushing reviews of this book, so your rating surprises me a bit. But hey, not every book works for every reader. I have heard that’s it also very slow in places. I have yet to read it, but I definitely want to, if only to see whether I’ll enjoy it or not!

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    1. So far it’s just me and 2 other commenters on here that I know didn’t love it as much as everyone else did.
      It is slow in some areas, but I do urge you to read it because it is a pretty good story.

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  8. I had much the same reaction. (My review is scheduled on my blog for later this month!) It was good, but way over-hyped. I do always enjoy Russian folklore, but I found The Crown’s Game and The Crown’s Fate to be far more satisfying than The Bear and The Nightingale. (Russian sorcerers competing to be Royal Sorcerer – it’s a great duology!) I’m still probably going to read the rest of the trilogy, but I was a little disappointed that it didn’t live up to my expectations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hmm…I might try The Crown’s Game then. I’m not familiar with Russian folklore, so I wouldn’t mind reading more books with bits of it in there. Thanks for that recommendation.

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  9. I was looking forward to this book as well! I’m currently half-way through reading it and am finding it slow-going. I agree with you that it is not a bad book. It’s not. The writing is fine. The characterization is fine. But I just don’t see the magic. (And it’s nice to read a review that didn’t gush about this book!)

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