Monday, April 30, 2018

The Bear and the Nightingale - Katherine Arden

I was intrigued by this when it first came out, probably because it was just after I'd read Naomi Novik's Uprooted and sounded like it might have quite a bit in common with it. I waited for it to appear in paperback, and might have waited a lot longer to read it but that the cold weather we're currently enduring (again, come in spring) made something light and fairy tale inspired really appealing.

I'm not very familiar with Russian folklore (though after reading 'The Bear and the Nightingale' I'm digging through my fairytale collection to learn more) but there's a lot of it in here, and I'm guessing that Arden knows her stuff. As with 'Uprooted' the protagonist is a young girl with some magical ability. In this case she has the sight - can see the spirits that guard house and stable, or live in the forests, lakes, and rivers, but so far that's more or less it.

The central character is Vasya, a free spirit of a girl not suited to either marriage or a convent (which are more or less the choices for a high born medieval Christian girl), which sets the scene for all sorts of tensions as she moves from childhood to becoming a woman who must be suitably disposed of by her family. Meanwhile something malign is stirring in the forest, and there are muttering in the village that Vasya is a witch.

What Arden does particularly well is create her world. It's medieval Russia, and whilst I could check the exact date from the Grand Prince's she mentions, I prefer to think in the fairy tale terms of once upon a time. The details she focuses on are mostly food and weather related - which are easy to picture, and also have a timeless quality.

The spirit figures are handled with the same reasonably broad brushstrokes, and are still familiar enough from folklore and fairytale to feel not to far away in the imagination. The time spent on character building is worthwhile too. Vasya and her family are well rounded and easy to invest in - which is just as well, because this is the first part of a trilogy, and in the end not much actually happens.

I really enjoyed this book, I'm happy to see the story through the next two instalments, but as with films that are clearly intended to be the first instalment of a franchise, I would have liked something that felt more like a complete story in itself. Not much happens for the majority of this book, then quite a bit gets squeezed in at the end which gives it a slightly unbalanced feel. The threat from whatever evil thing is gathering its strength in forest and shadows maybe also seems a bit to easily resolved - a lot of time and space is devoted to building up a menace and then suddenly it's all over.

On the whole though I found an eminently satisfying re working of Slavic folklore with a lot to recommend it. It's Arden's debut novel so it's going to be really interesting to see how she develops both the story, and as a writer.


  1. Spot on Hayley.I thoroughly enjoyed aspects of this book particularly the whole mood she creates and well drawn characters but I finished it feeling unhappy for the very reasons you give. I also look forward to she where she takes us and her development as a writer.

  2. It has made me start reading through some Russian magic tales/fairy tales and they're a delight, so that's a win! I'm also half way through Arden's second book and enjoying that well enough too.

  3. I really enjoyed it - and now have the second volume...

    1. I'm about 3/4 of the way through the second one. I really enjoyed the first one, and am loving the second one just as much, but still have the feeling that this wants to be a 1000 page epic rather than 3 books. The pace is a lot faster in book 2. There's so much that's one well here, but I do think the paving is slightly off - for me anyway. I'm also interested in why it's been marketed as literary fiction, not as fantasy or young adult - where I think it would sit well and be in excellent company.