- Title: The Bear and the Nightingale
- Author: Katherine Arden
- Genre: Fantasy
- Pages: 368
- Format: Paperback
- Other: Amazon, GoodReads
- Grade: D (2/5 stars)
Winter lasts most of the year at the edge of the Russian wilderness, and in the long nights, Vasilisa and her siblings love to gather by the fire to listen to their nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, Vasya loves the story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon. Wise Russians fear him, for he claims unwary souls, and they honor the spirits that protect their homes from evil.
Then Vasya’s widowed father brings home a new wife from Moscow. Fiercely devout, Vasya’s stepmother forbids her family from honoring their household spirits, but Vasya fears what this may bring. And indeed, misfortune begins to stalk the village.
But Vasya’s stepmother only grows harsher, determined to remake the village to her liking and to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for marriage or a convent. As the village’s defenses weaken and evil from the forest creeps nearer, Vasilisa must call upon dangerous gifts she has long concealed—to protect her family from a threat sprung to life from her nurse’s most frightening tales.
This is the book I had been waiting to read, the one I was so excited about because it was a retelling of a Russian fairy tale, one that I was introduced to in my 7th grade Russian class.
We watched this old Russian movie about a young, beautiful maiden with a wicked step mother who sent her stepdaughter out in the winter forests to die. There the beautiful maiden meets Frost/Morozko, who impressed with her kindness and politeness, gives her a chest of beautiful and valuable things.
Anyway, I was excited to read a retelling of this story because 1). I have a fascination with the Russian language, history, and culture, and 2). I love fairytale retellings. I thought I would love this.
It took me a week to read The Bear and The Nightingale because it was so incredibly slow. I didn’t get to the main plot of the novel until the novel was almost finished. Instead, I read all about Vasya’s childhood. And quite honestly, the first 200 hundred or so pages of the novel were completely unnecessary and completely uninteresting.
But the last 100 pages or so of the novel were intriguing. When we finally meet Morozko and finally get to understand the magic in this world, it’s fascinating. But those moments encompass a small portion of the novel. Essentially, this felt like it was written merely to set up the last two books of the trilogy.
But even more disappointing was that I found the characters to be so bland. Vasya is strong and independent in a world where women were expected to marry and carry children, or join a convent. Obviously, Vasya wants none of that. I should have liked her, but really, that was all there was to her character. She felt so…undeveloped. And then there was her stepmother who was only wicked because that’s what she was in the fairytale. But the Anna we met early into the novel did not strike me as someone who would turn into a wicked stepmother. Ultimately, her characterization made little sense. Essentially, there was only good and evil, and no in between.
And then there were the messages of the novel. I am not Christian, I’m not even religious, but I found this novel almost offensive. It blatantly paints Christianity as evil, as the destructive force to the “good” old ways. You have Father Konstantin who preaches fire and brimstone, seeking to encourage faith through fear juxtaposed to Vasya’s goodness and her faith towards the old stories.
I will admit that I did not hate this novel, but I did not enjoy it. And though I’ve heard the second novel is better, I have no intention of reading the rest of the series because I feel cheated, in a way, by the first. Ultimately, the story should have started sooner. There shouldn’t have been so much back story because quite frankly, the world, the magic system, and the plot were not complex enough to justify it.