Sunday, October 13, 2019

Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Published: Del Rey (2017)
Series: Book 1 of the Winternight Trilogy
Awards Nominated: Locus First Novel Award

The Book:

"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." ~Penguin Random House

The Bear and the Nightingale is Arden’s first novel, and I read it for consideration in voting for the John Campbell Award for Best New Writer (now the Astounding Award for Best New Writer).  Arden was a finalist for both 2018 and 2019.

My Thoughts:

The Bear and the Nightingale is a chronological story of the birth and childhood of the main character, Vasilisa (a.k.a Vasya).  The story is slow and meandering, often shifting to follow small subplots, and changing viewpoint characters fairly frequently. The supernatural conflict mentioned in the description does eventually arise, but it takes a long time for it to come to the forefront.  I think this kind of story rewards a reader with a strong emotional investment in the main character, Vasya. For me, she is an easy character to like -- kind, curious, and bold-- but I also think the narrative oversells her specialness a little. I get the impression that this novel is an origin story, and that the rest of the trilogy might follow her adventures as an adult.

Similar to my reaction to Vasya, I get the feeling that my emotional responses to the characters were not quite in line with the intent of the story. For instance, the description above makes Vasya’s stepmother, Anna, sound far more malicious and powerful than she actually is. I felt I could see the whole shape of Anna’s life, and it was a neverending nightmare. Her ability to see supernatural creatures could have been a blessing, but she genuinely believes that they are demons haunting her every waking day. She is also a victim of repeated marital rape, by a character we are meant to like.  She has no real power over anyone, not even herself. The enforcement of Christian piety is through the local priest, another person who is in Vasya’s life against his own will. I don’t blame him for some bitterness, since he is aware that his career is being sabotaged. Beyond that, though, he starts to embody virtually every negative stereotype of the Christian church. As a Christian, I didn’t like the way the story set up Christianity as an uncomplicated villain. 

Though I might not have had the intended reactions to the characters, I liked the writing style and the setting. It was interesting to see the various spirits from Russian folklore, and I enjoyed the chance to practice my understanding of Russian diminutives.  The setting was vivid--it seemed like I could almost feel the chill of winter. The supernatural elements were well-grounded, and felt like an organic part of Vasya’s world. I am not sure whether I would consider this novel to be part of the YA subgenre. The denser writing style and slow build of the story is more characteristic of adult fantasy, but it is a story about the childhood and coming-of-age of a young girl. Regardless, I can see how this is a book that has captured the imagination of many people. 

My Rating: 3/5

The Bear and the Nightingale is a slowly-paced origin story for the heroine, Vasilisa, who I expect will continue as the main character in the rest of the Winternight Trilogy.  I enjoyed the descriptive writing of the rural Russian countryside where she grew up, and the inclusion of creatures out of Russian folktales. The parts of the story that were supernatural fit in well with the natural world.  I personally had more sympathy for the antagonists than I think was intended, and perhaps a bit less for the heroine. I feel like this one was just not exactly up my alley, though I can understand its popularity.  

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