The Bear and the Nightingale (The Winternight Trilogy #1) by Katherine Arden – a Book Review

I stumbled upon this book on the shelf at the local library. The cover screamed “ATMOSPHERIC,” so it pulled me in. It is a blend of Russian folklore and medieval fantasy. It follows young Vasilisa (“Vasya”), the daughter of the local village leader. Vasya is an odd girl, wild and free and most at home in the forest or with the horses. She sees ancient creatures that no one else can see, the creatures of folklore that care for the home, the forests, the lakes, and the wildlife.

Her mother having died after Vasya’s birth, her father goes to Moscow and brings back a wife, a strange devout woman who takes an instant dislike to Vasya. This new stepmother also sees the creatures of folklore, but she views them as demons that should be cast out. Also arriving is an enigmatic priest whose feelings for Vasya are complicated. She both disgusts and entrances him, her unholy presence a threat to both the people of the town and his own fragile soul. The priest insists that only God can cleanse the village of the evils that have befallen it. You know the story. It’s all your fault. Repent, wring your hands, fall on your knees and give yourself over to God and everything will be ok. Only Vasya continues to bring offerings to the creatures that have protected and served the people for hundreds of years. As they grow weaker while people forget, they begin to fade. They become unsettled and angry, and darkness and difficulty befalls the people of her village. As the conflict bubbles to the surface, Vasya and the kindly forces of nature will find themselves battling evils of devastating power both within the town and from deep within the forest.

This story is wildly inventive and beautifully written. Vasya is the kind of heroine you can’t help but love. She’s wild, independent, fiercely honorable and protective. Above all, she’s smart and courageous, if only a bit reckless. It’s this recklessness that forces her to action when there is desperate need. She’s not gullible in the face of fear-mongering. It’s not just supernatural ability that causes her to see more than most. She’s able to think critically when others shut down, and she refuses to allow the weak minded to prey upon her fears. This story may be from a bygone day, but it will always be relevant. Forget the fairy tales of the damsels in distress who sleep through all the action.

There is something melancholy about this story in what it represents. I adore the old legends of ancient folklore, but they have faded from the minds and hearts of people. In so many cultures, they were forced out by powerful invaders who brought their own religions they mandated as the truth. Over time, the people didn’t realize they had taken up the weapon as their own and left behind the stories and fables of their ancestors. Thank goodness for the written word that exists in celebration of these historical gems. The presence of legend and magic can still be felt and I think they can still make a comeback. I hope so, because I’d be very willing to leave out tasty treats for the domovoi if they’d help me keep my house clean.

The only thing I had difficulty with this book is keeping track of all the Russian terminology. Even character names got complicated because they were referred to alternately by given names or nicknames/shortened or adapted versions/etc. While this is probably 100% culturally accurate, it can spark some confusion. And when you aren’t familiar with the folklore, the names of some creatures could sound quite similar and run together. Arden did include a helpful glossary of terms, which is extremely helpful. I feel like once I got my bearings things became a lot easier.

4 stars for this unique fairy tale.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Published January 10, 2017 by Del Rey. ISBN 9781101885932. Hardcover. 319 pages.


About Amy @ A Librarian and Her Books

I'm a law librarian from the state of Missouri and a graduate of Missouri State University and the University of Missouri-Columbia. My real passion is in fiction, which is why I started my blog to share my thoughts with other bibliophiles. I live with my husband and two wonderful children and a collection of furry feline companions.
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