ARC Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

review         book

I'll Meet You Theretitle: The Bear and the Nightingale
author: Katherine Arden
pages: 336
format: Paperback
buy it: Amazon | B&N | Goodreads
rating: 3.5/5 (from hated to loved) or 8/10 (all books I've ever read)
recommended for: Fans of Uprooted by Naomi Novik, Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones, or And I Darken by Kiersten White.
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 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, 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.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

in depth

  • A dark, atmospheric fairy tale with the sensuous charm of Wintersong (though much lighter on the romance!), the woodsy old country tone of Uprooted, and the scope of And I Darken.  It's a slow-burning tale that breaths life into Russian folklore and history.  

  • It's slow, almost painfully so in the beginning.  Many readers will be lost here.  Arden starts before Vasya is ever born, and spends quite some time with her mother and father.  I kept with it because I was entranced by the language and the world.  I'm glad I did, because the story creeps up on you, languidly unfolds into something entrancing. 

  • Vasya is a spirited, fae character.  She befriends kitchen devils and talks to horses.  She's the strongest character, and easy to love.  Her father is next, well-meaning but somewhat oblivious, the prototype of a kindly boyar.  Then there's her stepmother, whom I loathed.  In a good way.  Her cruelty isn't exaggerated like in some tales.  It's believable, the fervent viciousness of someone who believes what they do is in service to God--led on by the golden-haired priest whose narcissism drives him to become an idol to the people of the isolated town.  

  • Other characters were somewhat underutilized.  I wanted more of Vasya's brothers and of Dunya, her wise nursemaid.  There was so much muchness in this book, so much expansiveness in the world.  Too many stories to be adequately contained in one book, so naturally a few were left a little limp.  

  • The worldbuilding and language worked together to create a home for these characters, and for the reader.  Arden's prose is lyrical and visceral.  She borrows old phrases and sprinkles Russian words judiciously.  There's a sedate magic in the way her phrases build on each other.  They sneak up on you, slowly, and then suddenly your head is in the chilly forest and there are stars in your eyes.  It's rich with quirky creatures (I seriously want to squeeze the domovoi, whom I pictured as a Pignite for no good reason) and superstition.  

  • The plot is intriguing, but a bit convoluted.  It took me a while to get my bearings.  (Get it, bearings?)  Once I did, I found myself reading rapidly.  The character dynamics were fascinating.  There was something very Dostoyevsky-esque in the atmosphere Arden weaves, in her large cast and their complex interpersonal struggles.  It was deeply human as much as it was fantasy. 

  • Then it stopped rather abruptly, when I was just getting to know the night king.  More Morozko, please?  I wanted the book to start later in the story and end later in the story.  The last page was like an unfinished sentence, a breath cut off by a knife to the throat.  I don't know that I want a sequel, because sequels so often spoil a good standalone, but maybe a novella? 

  • All in all, it was a powerful reading experience.  I'd read it again.  Arden's folktale, though perhaps more expansive than its current bounds, is rich with old world mystery, modern sensibility, and subtle wit.  

        in a sentence

        The Bear and the Nightingale is a slow-burning fairy tale that captures the chilly magic of Russian folklore.  


        I'm between 3.5 and 4 stars. It's so hard to rate! 
        will i read this author again?  Yes, definitely 
        will i continue the series?  N/A 

        Note: I received this copy from the author/publisher in exchange for an honest review.  The price of the book and its origin in no way affected my stated opinions.


        1. I'm really excited to read this eventually, but I'm also a little scared by your comment about the ending. Out of context, I feel like that will leave me really annoyed! I guess I'll just have to see how it is when I get round to it myself. :)

          1. Don't let me scare you away! It could totally just be me. I hope you end up liking it!