The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

I finally got around to reading The Bear and the Nightingale and I’m so glad that I did. Almost every little aspect comes together to create this wonderful, cosy book – the kind that makes you want to curl up in front of a fireplace and read.

The first thing that everyone notices is the writing style. Of course, it’s written in a fairy tale-like way to evoke the magical atmosphere, but the way it balances the fanciful and eerie natures is wonderful. The reader is always kept entranced by and wary of the mythical creatures in equal parts. On top of the fairy tale style, the prose is lyrical in its descriptions of the forest, Vasya’s house, and just the toil of everyday life in general. The book takes place over several years but it never feels rushed. The seasons flow into each other seamlessly and the characters’ growth is equally smooth.

The Bear and the Nightingale combines the real setting of Medieval Christian Russia with much Russian and Slavic mythology to great success. No knowledge of either is required despite there being times that I was unsure of some casually mentioned Russian concepts. I should stress that this isn’t a bad thing though; it’s far more realistic that these things be embraced by the author without slowing down the book explaining what they mean, especially considering that there was nothing vital to the story that was confusing. The folklore was handled a little less gracefully with many creatures just explaining to Vasya (and by extension, the reader) what they are and how they are relevant. But more important than how they were individually handled is how they were intertwined. The creatures felt like just another aspect of the world – the characters just accept that kitchens have domovoi and stables have dvorovoi, if not knowing why which leads the reader to accept this as business as usual too.

Without doubt my favourite aspect of the book was the familial relationships. From the outset, the siblings are portrayed so perfectly in how they interact. They tease each other, are playful, argue and support each other. A special shoutout to Vasya and Alyosha whose every conversation reminded me of mine and my sister’s.

“What’s that, Lyoshka?” she said, around a mouthful. Her brother leaned on his spade, squinting up at her. “What’s it to you?” Alyosha quite liked Vasya, who was up for anything—nearly as good as a younger brother—but he was almost three years older and had to keep her in her place. “Don’t know,” said Vasya, chewing. “Cake?” She held out half of her last one with a little regret; it was the fattest and least ashy. “Give,” said Alyosha, dropping his shovel and holding out a filthy hand. But Vasya put herself out of range. “Tell me what you’re doing,” she said. Alyosha glared, but Vasya narrowed her eyes and made to eat the cake. Her brother relented.

Ultimately the book delves into two heavy topics – the role assigned to women in society and how ignorance can so easily be controlled. The former, in particular, is handled well and is discussed all throughout the book. Fairly early on Vasya’s sister Olga is married off and from that onwards Vasya becomes acutely aware that she will soon be forced to do so also or else join a convent. When she pushes back from these options almost everyone points out that this is the natural lot in life for women. Arden tackles the topic with nuance – Olga is shown to be content with her marriage and Vasya doesn’t look down on her for it. She’s happy for her, at the same acknowledging that the life isn’t for her.

The Bear and the Nightingale is altogether a fantastic book. I suppose that isn’t a surprise revelation at this point but really for a debut novel, I was blown away by the elegant storytelling and the authentic characters and can’t wait to read the rest of the trilogy.