Title: The Bear and the Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Format: eBook (courtesy of NetGalley and Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine)
Start Date: November 9, 2016
End Date: November 26, 2016
Rating: 4 stars
In Russian, Frost was called Morozko, the demon of winter. But long ago, the people called him Karachun, the death-god. Under that name, he was king of the black midwinter who came for bad children and froze them in the night. It was an ill-omened word, and unlucky to speak in it while he still held the land in his grip.
Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale has been one of the books I have been most excited to read. It was likened to both Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, both of which I read and enjoyed, especially since I consider the former one of my all-time favorite books.
This book was similar to American Gods in the respect that it told the story of an epic battle waged between the old gods and the new, though it was set in the cold of 16th century northern Russia instead of modern-day America. It followed the story of Vasya, the youngest daughter of Pyotr Vladimirovich and Marina Ivanovna (the half-sister of Ivan Ivanovich, or Ivan the Terrible), who grew up without her mother after her death during childbirth. But Vasya was special. She was able to see the “demons” – the gods of old – who inhabited the fringes of the world. Armed with only this sight, and Morozko’s gift of a blue necklace, she must face the darkness of the Bear in order to save her village.
I enjoyed the character of Vasya. Even though she was a girl, she had a very strong voice and a deep desire to forge her own path. Her brother Alyosha seemed to be the only one to understand her. Her older siblings, although featured extensively in the first several chapters, were not pertinent characters in the later portion of the book (Olga, the oldest sister, was married and moved to Moscow; Sasha, the pious brother, became a monk far from the village; Kolya married a woman in the village and had a son, and was mentioned occasionally).
Anna Ivanovna and Father Konstantin were later additions to the story, namely Pyotr’s second wife (and daughter of Ivan Ivanovich) and a golden-haired priest from Moscow. These characters were complex, though villainous by way of being pious and god-loving. For varying reasons, each sought to cease worship of the “demons “ of old for the gods of new, in direct opposition to Vasya. Although I was not a fan of their characters or motives, I was able to respect the fact that they were doing only what they thought was the best course of action.
When I finished, I realized that I wanted more out of the story. It seemed like there was a lot of setup, and though I loved being introduced to the various characters (for example, those mentioned above, as well as the “demons” that Vasya was friendly with, such as the domovoi who lived at the family hearth) and getting a glimpse into Russian folklore, the balance between setup and resolution was off. The plot was resolved so quickly at the end, making the story seem rushed and unfinished. The implication throughout was that the action was going to culminate in this huge battle of good(ish) versus evil between the two brothers (Morozko and the Bear, whose relationship I would have liked to know more about than two paragraphs’ worth), with Vasya there to shape the battle. However, I feel like it was all over so quickly, with the end of the battle caused by something thrown completely out of left field – a twist that I never saw coming nor 100% agree with its relevance.
Overall, even though I felt there were some flaws, I really enjoyed this book. I don’t think it entirely lived up to the hype (at least the hype I felt for it), but I am still glad I was given the opportunity to read this novel by Katherine Arden. I will definitely be checking out more of her work in the future!