Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale is an enthralling, slow-moving Russian fairytale about a lethal and deadly winter demon (Jack Frost) and a young woman of power battling a demon bear of the forest. It’s a tale as old as time; good v evil, though the deadly winter demon, Morozko, is far from good (he’s darn scary and badass). The story is richly steeped in religious tones, as magical spirits of old and legend start to fade as the worship of Christianity grows in Vasya’s village, aided by the dangerous fervour and manipulations of Father Konstantin.

As I mentioned above, The Bear and Nightingale is slow. The battle has been foreshadowed from when Vasya was a babe, so it’s not until well into the second half of the book that Vasya comes of age and becomes truly aware of her destiny. Vasya is strong-willed and independent. She is the baby of the family, and seems to do everything wrong. She is reminded constantly from how others react to her behaviour how different she is from the rest of her family and village. She’s also casually beaten by her father for her wilful transgressions, which I have no doubt was a norm back in the medieval days.

She’s determined to have and live her own life, which is very much against what her father wants, and they constantly have a battle of the wills between the two of them. Her village helps shape and creates the way forward in which the demon Bear, Medved, comes into existence by Father Konstantin, who is sent to the village with Vasya’s new step-mother.

Vasya is constantly under the beady and lustful eye of Father Konstantin, and she is emotionally and physically abused by her-stepmother. Her father has lost his way since the death of Vasya’s mother, but Vasya has her Grandmother and her brother Sasha, who I can’t wait to read more about in the following books. So while the driving force is the oncoming battle between Frost and his evil brother Bear, it’s also a story of a family that’s gone through death and separations in an age of famine and poverty.

I would say those who read Uprooted will enjoy this dark fairytale, though the two stories are vastly different in tone, with religion playing a centre role in The Bear and the Nightingale. Christianity isn’t shown in the best of light in this story, as it’s used as part of the antagonist with Bear. As more people worship Christianity, the old spirits start to fade away, and the more Bear grows until he is finally awakened. But it is counterbalanced by Vasya’s older brother, who becomes a monk. This book shows how religion can be centered on love and kindness, but it’s also manipulated and used for hate.

There’s no romantic elements per say, but towards the end as Morozko and Vasya unite, there is a hint of something. While I wished there was a romance, I was happy there was at least a little something. Once I found out this is the first book of a series, the ending makes a lot more sense, as Vasya’s power and her ancestry is hinted at but never revealed. For most of the book I couldn’t figure out why a Nightingale was in the title and when it was revealed in the end it felt a little-too-late, though the surprise has left me wanting more. Sorry. Spoilers.

All in all this was a very enjoyable book and though at times I wished the story picked up speed much sooner and there was more fantasy, Vasya and Morozko and her family, especially Sasha, glued me to the pages until very late in the early morning and I cannot wait until the next book.

I give The Bear and the Nightingale a B+

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