Based on a Russian fairy tale, The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden is an interesting, multi-genre novel that kept me engaged. The book is about a Russian man named Pyotr who is a minor nobility from the middle of nowhere. He has a small village he looks over, and that includes his own family. But when his wife, weak with cold and hunger during Russia’s long winter, says she is going to have a daughter who will have witch powers like the her own mother, Pyotr wants her to get rid of the child and spare herself from dying in childbirth. The wife refuses, and so Vasya is born and the wife dies.
When Vasya is a small girl, Pyotr remarries to a devout Christian woman from Moscow who sees demons. The only place Anna doesn’t see them is in churches, but her pleas to be sent to a convent are ignored and she’s given to Pyotr, whose remote village deep in the forest will keep Anna from embarrassing her noble family. In Pyotr’s village, people both leave offerings to small demons who protect the village and attend church. But Anna brings a new priest to Pyotr’s village who makes the villagers fear God, a God who will burn them alive if they praise anything other than Him. Neglected, the small demons cannot protect the village anymore. A deep freeze settles in, crops won’t grow, the horses are struggling. And the Bear, a terrorizing demon that slumbers when the spirits are admired, is beginning to wake up. He will bring the end of life to the village. But the Bear has a brother whose role as Death can’t be ignored, but may provide unexpected help.
Katherine Arden’s novel is often described as a young adult reading level, but I disagree. Readers need to have some knowledge of Russian history and naming conventions, and Russian words are used throughout (there’s a glossary at the end). On a sentence-level, the writing feels more adult than juvenile. At one of our book club meetings, we discussed how frightening the novel could be when the dead begin to rise and eat people. I know I was scared; all I could picture were the gruesome images by Stephen Gammell that accompany the Scary Story book series by Alvin Schwartz.
It’s also hard to say, “This is only a fairy tale rewriting.” The frightening section was more akin to horror novels I’ve enjoyed. This is also a coming-of-age story (likely why The Bear and The Nightingale are dubbed YA by some readers), and we get a historical fiction setting. Any book that blends genres and is well-written is often a winner for me, because it’s a clever writer who can borrow from the best of multiple genres and craft something new. Arden is a strong writer who plots beautifully, making connections across the novel and crafting vivid frozen settings in a dark, demon-filled forest. I didn’t trust any character fully, and there are no clean good/evil divides in Arden’s novel, a factor that kept me reading because I couldn’t gauge how a character would react in a situation.
Contemporary novels that are set in real history may get the modern treatment: more liberated characters, diversity, and ignoring conventions. Arden avoids that. Yes, Vasya is weird compared to other girls who wish for a good marriage or a life at a convent, but Vasya also isn’t a modern feminist pushing against culture. She wants to live her own way, true, but there are no impassioned speeches in the style of Katniss Everdeen, and there aren’t hoards of girls who follow her liberated lead. Arden’s intentional choice makes the novel feel grounded in history while allowing readers to hope Vasya can find her place.
While The Bear and The Nightingale is the first book in a trilogy, you can easily stop when you’re done. It has a satisfactory conclusion, but for those who are curious, they can read on.