The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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.

26 comments

  1. I was really unsure about this one because I find folktale style novels very hit and miss, but the horror element sounds brilliant and has encouraged me to try it.

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  2. I loved all three of the books in this series. She only grows in strength and power, and her will is greater than any character I’ve ever read. Feminists have existed throughout history and she is one, no doubt.

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    • I just finished the third book two nights ago, and Vasya definitely grows in ways I don’t want to spoil in this review. In The Bear and The Nightingale, she seems to fight less for equality for all people and more for her desire to be left alone to her own decision making. I believe that changes in book three when she makes a bond with some demons and royalty!

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  3. Glad you enjoyed this one! I read this a couple of years ago, and respected it but didn’t love it – the horror elements pushed it too far outside my comfort zone. I do think that I will be following Arden’s career though, and if she ever puts out something that’s straight fantasy or science fiction without those horror bits, I expect that I will love it.

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  4. I find it so frustrating that coming of age stories or stories that simply feature a young character are often called YA. It seems to me that the themes and style of the book are much more important for determining age range of the audience, and it’s silly to think that adults can’t learn anything from books that feature children. But, that aside, everything about this book (and the wider trilogy) sounds so appealing to me, and seeing that you enjoyed it makes me that much more eager to pick it up. I really want to read this in winter, though!

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    • It would be incredibly weird if Vasya were older because in that time period (late 1300s) she was already getting “old” to be married, and she’s only 17 by the end of the third novel. Her sister got married around 14 or 15 to a prince, and everyone hoped for a similar match for Vasya. But I’m totally with you, and I think it’s problematic to label all books with a teen protagonist YA because there are some books that might be way too heavy. I still maintain that Louise O’Neill’s books feel very adult, even though they’re full of teens.

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      • It sounds like Arden made a great choice with the age of the protagonist, letting her fit the story naturally instead of trying too hard to cater to genre/age expectations. Personally I really like it when authors stretch the boundaries that way, using a detail (like age) that should fit one category and instead reshaping it to fit another. I do get tired of tropes and repetition. And I agree on some teen protagonist content being too heavy for a young audience- Louise O’Neill would’ve shocked me as a teen, though as an adult I appreciate her skill.

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  5. Great review! I enjoyed this one when I read it but never felt any pull to read on. I liked the Russian setting and mythology and the play of religion versus tradition.

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    • The conversation about Christianity vs. paganism goes deeper in the later two books. When the author came to speak at my digital book club, I asked her about Christianity vs. paganism, and she said that historically, the pagan spirits and demons were there to look out for people during their lifetimes, and God was there to save their souls. People would often follow both traditions.

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    • When I was in grad school, I remember going to literary conferences, and my favorite panels were always about blending genre into literary fiction. People still have to fight to convince some communities that genres have trademark features, but are also capable of literary quality.

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  6. It’s been awhile since I read this one but I remember liking it! And I do remember it being scary as well, I had forgotten that some said it was YA book but I agree with you, it’s just…too much of everything to be YA. Do you think you’ll read the next one?

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  7. I’ve been meaning to check this out and your review has convinced me. I’ve been avoiding YA fantasy for awhile precisely because of the heroines—I am beginning to dislike how they try too hard to be badass and fiercely modern. I think there’s more than one way to be a ‘strong’ or engaging heroine, and Vasya sounds interesting to me. Great review!

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    • I asked the other members of my book club, and none of us, me included, feel this is a young adult novel. I think it got categorized that way because the protagonist is a teen, but given the time period (late 1300s), she would be an adult.

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  8. I don’t think this series is young adult at all. I do however think it is brilliant. I found the first book to be a perfect standalone but the last book made it an excellent trilogy. It is crazy that I can’t choose which way I like the books better. I am very much looking to read about the next two. Luckily I can binge them all at once now.
    x The Captain

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    • Almost 1,200 people categorized this novel as YA on Goodreads, and I disagree with them. I saw on Goodreads that you got an early look at these books. Lucky! The author was SO SMART. She joined our virtual book club, and though she is young, that lady is wicked knowledgeable about Russia, its history, and its fairy tales.

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