14 January 2023

Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden book cover

Set in a bitterly cold winter in a small medieval village in Russia, The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden is full of Russian fairytales and folktales. The villagers have been making offerings to the household spirits for generations and are wary of what dwells in the dense forests.

However the arrival of a new priest from Moscow changes the household completely as magic is essentially outlawed and the Christian Priest Konstantin is intent on purging devils and witches from the town.

The villagers are forced to choose between their Christian beliefs and salvation or their mystic traditions of old and certain damnation.

Unfortunately for our protagonist Vasya, Konstantin is frighteningly effective:
"His voice was like thunder, yet he placed each syllable like Dunya setting stitches. Under his touch, the words came alive. His voice was deep as rivers in spring. He spoke to them of life and death, of God and of sin. He spoke of things they did not know, of devils and torments and temptation. He called it up before their eyes so that they saw themselves submitting to the judgment of God, and saw themselves damned and flung down.
As he chanted, Konstantin pulled the crowd to him until they echoed his words in a daze of fascinated terror. He drove them on and on with the supple lash of his voice until their answering voices broke and they listened like children frightened during a thunderstorm. Just as they were on the verge of panic - or rapture - his voice gentled." Page 149
Vasya knows the harm that will come if the old traditions aren't upheld and risks her life to save her family despite their distrust of her abilities. Vasya's connection with horses was one of my favourite elements of the book, and reminded me of Poison Study by Maria V Snyder.

According to her father Pyotr, Vasya is destined for either marriage or a convent and she vehemently wants neither. Convinced the villagers are in trouble, Vasya will do anything for agency over her life:
"I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man's servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me. Please." Page 367
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden is a coming of age story and a tribute to storytelling and fairytale. I really enjoy a novel that blends historical fiction in a tale inspired by folkore so if you enjoy books by Kate Forsyth or Naomi Novik, you'll love this.

It's difficult to believe this is the author's debut with descriptions like this one:
"The winter half of the house boasted huge ovens and small, high windows. A perpetual smoke trickled from its chimneys, and at the first hard freeze, Pyotr fitted its window-frames with slabs of ice, to block the cold but let in the light. Now firelight from his wife's room threw a flickering bar of gold onto the snow." Page 13
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden is the first in the Winternight trilogy, and I look forward to reading The Girl In The Tower next.

My Rating:

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