An Enchanting Debut! The Bear and the Nightingale

In some ways, I’ve always been looking for a book like this.

A book about Russia that doesn’t just paint its people into simple lines of (evil) communist spies or . . . well mostly the spy thing. Don’t get me wrong, Cold War Russian agents facing off against British or American heroes is compelling drama, but it should not be the only story we read. Nor can the revolution against a corrupt monarchy be the only story either. As Arden proves in The Bear and the Nightingale, there is so much more to tell.

Set in medieval Russia, The Bear and the Nightingale explores a host of different themes but the two main arguments seem to take place around gender roles and religion vs folk tradition. The world Arden sets up is a kind of living fairytale in which gods and monsters are real, and can be both cruel and kind depending on their whims. It provides an absolutely enchanting backdrop in which to explore her ideas and opinions.

The amount of research she did to bring such a world to life is absolutely astounding. I’m sure that my knowledge of Russian folklore was about the same as most casual readers when I began The Bear and the Nightingale, pretty much zero. I had heard of the Baba Yaga (and her chicken footed house), and had an idea of some kind of a powerful winter spirit from my own family’s tradition of putting “Father Frost” or Ded Moroz on the top of our Christmas tree each year. Arden’s Morozko seems to come from another legend, but the two appear to have a lot in common.

But before reading this book, I had never heard of a Domovoy, or a Bannik, or any of the other spirits we meet in the households of Lesnaya Zemlya. The more I read, the more I found myself wishing I could peep into the fireplace and catch a Domovoy hiding there, waiting for bread (although I’m not sure I’d want a Bannik anywhere near my shower hahah).

Of course, once the initial wonder at the setting wore off (although I don’t think it really ever did), there is a great cast of characters who grab your attention and do not let it go. I enjoyed seeing just how deeply Pyotr Vladomirovich cared for his family, but how impossible his choices were in the face of a society that only allowed his daughters to occupy very specific roles. Of course watching Vasya grow, and uphold the folk traditions was incredible and I’m excited to see more of her in The Girl in the Tower. Lastly, I found Konstantin to be a compelling and relatable villain.

My only disappointment in the novel was that (of course) the church had to be bad, stamping out the folk traditions in a way that just felt too easy and straightforward. Interestingly, Arden seems to set up the concept and possibility of Dvoeverie, or dual-belief, in her version of medieval Russia. She says in an interview for BookPage:

“We also examined the notion that Slavic paganism never really disappeared from the Russian countryside after the arrival of Christianity; rather they coexisted, with some friction, for centuries. I was fascinated by the tensions inherent in such a system, as well as the notion of a complicated magical world interacting so subtly with the real one.”

But ultimately, while I felt she did present the ‘friction’ well, I don’t believe she really ever allowed the two to coexist in the way she claims they did. We’re very quickly aligned with Vasya as the main character, and father Konstantin, and the church, as villains. I guess I just wanted to see that dual-belief actually exist.

So . . . recommend?

Yes! Whole heartedly yes. A quick search reveals Bear and the Nightingale to have been nominated for, and won several awards back in 2017 (won Amazon’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017, and nominated for Goodreads Best Fantasy 2017, and Goodreads Best Debut 2017).

All of these awards are well deserved. I’m anxiously looking forward to starting the next book in the series, The Girl in the Tower.

Anyway, that’s all for now! Have you read this one? What where your thoughts? What’s your favorite creature from Russian mythology! Please leave your answers in the comments.

AI Generated Witch’s hut!

Still here? Awesome. I’m glad you enjoyed my review of Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale. If you think this book is for you, or that you might like reading something similar, then you might just want to sign up for my newsletter.

I know, weird ask, but honestly, I was so inspired by this book, and others like it, as well as real Russian history, fairy tales and folk traditions, that I decided to write my own short story in a similar vein. I’ll be releasing it on January 14th to newsletter subscribers. Also, just for signing up I’ll send you an email with the very first story I ever wrote about a Warlock Doctor.

Thanks for your time, and I hope to see you around here more!

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