Title: The Bear and the Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult, Romance, Gothic Literature, Russian Literature, Fairytale.
As I think I’ve said before, I’m a sucker for anything Russian based. I love the history of this vast country, and it’s true that within history comes different cultures and tales. And the mythos around Russian folklore is just so far removed from the fairytales that I grew up with as an English girl, I feel constantly drawn to them.
So when I read the back of The Bear and the Nightingale in my local Waterstones, I knew it would be right up my street.
Set in a village during the infancy of feudal Russia (nearly two hundred years before Ivan the Terrible) The Bear and the Nightingale has factual and fictional base around the culture of this remote part of the world – a time in which religion and the command of the land holds sway over the everyday Russian’s lives, and sorcery and folklore as real as breathing.
But for a young woman Vasya; the last daughter and child of the kindly but gruff boyar Pyotr Vladimirovich and his dead wife Marina, these aren’t just stories. As Vasya can see the house spirits that guard her home and surrounding areas, and she can sense when the growing forces of dark magic are breaking free from the wild forests of Russia’s landscapes.
There are a few things I loved about this book. One being that in the last few years, we’ve had a good spate of Russian inspired fairytales (see my review for Gregory Maguire’s Egg and Spoon review) and I think this novel fits in very well with exploring this wonderful culture. The writing was very lyrical and the working in of the Russian words and terminology made the story come alive in a very real way.
I enjoyed some of the character depth – especially with Father Konstantin’s interest in Vasya turning into something far more than religious interest in the young woman, and his shame about these developing feelings (felt very Judge Frollo from Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame here), along with Vasya’s transformation from a wild young girl into a young woman.
However, this book does have its negative points. I felt the story lost itself halfway through, and the jumble of different spirits and how Vasya affected the balance of the world made for quite a mess when reading it. Towards the end, when the climax and tone of the book should be at its most urgent and pronounced, there wasn’t any tension. It played it safe, and for a book that really could have been fairly violent and almost squeamish, it felt almost boring to read. The book seems to meander quite a lot, and never really hits home about the point it’s trying to make.
Unfortunately, the character of Morozoko (A Russian-esque Jack Frost character) gets lost with his characterisation. I felt like when he was explaining himself and his conflict with his twin (these two were supposed to be really central and important characters) his story never really made sense and didn’t make him memorable.
I wanted more of him and this sort of folklore and less of the house and stable spirits we were subjected too.
However, despite all this, I am curious about the sequel – The Girl in the Tower – despite all my negative thoughts, so I probably will pick it up to see whether it improves. Expect a review on this too.
Overall, a good premise and lyrical book, but one that falls short on delivering.