The Bear & the Nightingale

I loved this book!  I mean… you guys!  I loved this book!!!!!

With the exception of the tales surrounding Baba Yaga, Russian folklore is pretty much a complete unknown to me, but The Bear and the Nightingale has definitely peaked my interest in Slavic folktales and traditions.  If you’re already familiar with the tale on which this particular story was based, Arden’s retelling can certainly do nothing but add to its meaning and beauty; for those as unfamiliar with it as I was prior to reading this particular book, I can say that this will leave an impression on you that you will not soon forget.

The Bear & the Nightingale

Author: Katherine Arden

Published: 2017

Genre: Fantasy

Pages: 336

Version: Amazon Kindle

Score: yarn-ball-ratings-5-loved

“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 the 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 and 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.”

Review

The tale’s setting and scenery play some of the largest roles in the overall story.  To begin with, Vasya is born during the medieval period, when Christianity had managed to secure a choke-hold on most urban districts – Moscow included – but had not yet managed to destroy and vilify the traditional folk beliefs and superstitions still prevalent in the villages and towns spread across the vast countryside.  The imagery is its most powerful when moving from location to location: the soulless buildings and pretentious people of the busy, bustling city are a stark contrast to the vivid, vibrant, wild land Vasya herself calls home; the familiar forest with its lush greenery and clear rivers is entirely separate from the cold, dark, frozen woods that serve as the realm of both the Bear and his brother, the dreaded Winter King.  Arden’s vision was so clearly laid out that I even began to associate each location within the tale with specific colors: Moscow was all in monochrome, while Lesnaya Zemlya was blazing amber and vivid crimson; the forest surrounding the village was brilliant greens and earthy browns, while the winter woods were blinding white and icy blues.

But the trick Arden successfully manages to pull off is that she puts you there – plops you right down into a country divided by religion, war, and class structure – and then paints her story around you, effectively and immediately making you a part of this place and these people.  We have our own problems, sure, but we don’t know what it’s like to fear the Mongol hordes, nor do most of us have to break our backs working from sunup to sundown from Spring to Autumn just so we can have some sort of fighting chance of surviving Winter.  But Arden doesn’t dwell on the differences of Then & There versus Here & Now to lend that extra flair of magic to her fairy tale.  Instead, we experience each season and moment with Vasya and her family – no matter where or when we live, we all can understand on some level the biting ache of bitter cold, the sweet solace of a quiet meadow, the gnawing pangs of hunger, the safe comfort of loving and being loved, the terrible burden of guilt, the excitement of victory, the sinking feeling of despair.  And that’s the real magic of this story – that the magic itself is made to feel so familiar, so commonplace.  It is a part of Vasya, it is who she is and how she is, and she knows no other way of being or seeing the world.

But make no mistake: this is a story about magic.  In the midst of this fascinating period, unnoticed within this fledgling empire, a mysterious and beautiful woman brimming with old magic walks out of a dark wood, into a bustling metropolis, and marries a prince.  Her lovely daughter lives a fairly ordinary life but willingly sacrifices herself in an attempt to salvage the dwindling magic of her lineage.  And her plain and seemingly unremarkable granddaughter heeds the advice of horses, passes time with the children of the river, breaks bread with the spirit of her home, and follows the path that leads to a realm which exists between Awake and Dreaming.

I loved the twists Arden took when developing her characters, as well.  Our protagonist, surrounded by the fantastic as she is, is surprisingly down-to-earth.  Vasya approaches life with wide-eyed wonderment and an open mind, which is helpful considering animals tend to talk around her and strange creatures appear at random whenever she’s nearby, but she is also logical, intelligent, and reasonably level-headed.  Rather than being the great beauty one might expect from the heroine of a fantasy novel, Vasya is, by default, everything a woman of medieval Russia shouldn’t be: tall, dark, awkward, opinionated, stubborn, tomboyish, brash, and unbiddable.  The supporting characters, meanwhile, serve to keep us grounded in the reality of that time period: Vasya is set apart, free to be as she is, while her father struggles to conform to the expectations of his station, her brothers take up arms for family or God, and her elder sister submits to one of the two choices available to women – the yoke of arranged marriage (the other option being the convent).

Then we have the antagonists: the priest Konstantin, the step-mother Anna, and the brothers known primarily as The Bear and The Winter King.  Unfortunately, I can’t discuss the latter two without giving away a bit of the plot, so I’ll avoid talking much about them at all in my review.  Without giving too much away, I will say that both Konstantin and Anna are almost as pitiable as they are wicked.  Konstantin is a priest of his times: Christianity was not spread by a bunch of kindly old men wandering around preaching the importance of people being kind to one another, nor did it gain or maintain power by allowing people to choose as their consciences dictated.  Christianity, once adopted, was spread, as Vasya reminds us, via fear – fear of punishment, fear of torture, fear of being outcast, fear of execution, and, if all of that failed, fear of eternal damnation, of fire and judgment and wrath.  Konstantin believes in his god with all of his heart, but the combination of intolerance, envy, and pride make him easily fooled and, thus, easily used.  While I disliked Konstantin from the beginning and gradually grew to pity him, I did the opposite with Anna: her initial plight was worthy of sympathy, but she allowed her fear and intolerance to twist and pervert her, turning her into a monster more ferocious and heartless than the demons by which she believes herself to be surrounded.

I had only two real issues with the novel, when it was all said and done, but neither were significant enough for me to drop the overall score:

My first issue was with the final battle, which, well… wasn’t.  It seemed like we built up to something that simply fizzled away and was abruptly resolved – it actually happened so fast that I backed up and re-read half the chapter just to make sure I hadn’t missed something.  And to be honest, I’m still not entirely sure what the hell happened.  To put it in familiar terms (and to avoid giving away anything from the plot itself), it would be as if Frodo had gotten all the way from the Shire to the pit of Mount Doom only to have Gandalf suddenly appear out of nowhere, snatch the One Ring from Gollum, give him a stern talking to about the importance of trust and friendship, toss the Ring casually over his shoulder into the firey pit himself like it weren’t no thang, and walk away like a boss.

The second issue I had was with the overall tone of the Afterward – primarily the fact that Arden has written this beautiful story but still feels the need to make excuses for her choices when it came to the spelling of many of the Russian names.  Sure, it’s a nice gesture for an author to acknowledge that they took some liberties… but the liberties she took weren’t done out of malice or ignorance, nor were they noticeable or in any way significant to… well… anything, really, which serves to do nothing but take the focus off of this lovely story and end it with a babbling, defensive apology.

So, all in all, a great book, give it a read, hats off to the author for a fantastibulistic debut novel…  Just do yourself a favor and avoid the strange Afterward.

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