I am incredibly happy to be starting a new year of reviews with this book because it was a fantastic book to be reading as this last year came to an end. After finishing it I went back and reread the initial description that inspired me to put it on my preview request list—having forgotten everything about that description in the months between submitting my request and reading the book. I had to laugh because usually, those descriptions feel strategically written with an eye towards marketing—which, of course, they are—but in this case I found completely accurate. Katherine Arden’s upcoming The Bear and the Nightingale reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and is also “recommended” for fans of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus (which I just got a personal copy of for Christmas so I can read and enjoy it all over again).
It is some years after Pyotr Vladimirovich’s beloved wife Marina died following the birth of their youngest daughter, Vasilisa (called Vasya), but he finally admits that the time has come for him to remarry—mostly so there is another woman around to help with Vasya who appears to take her nurse’s fairy tales a little too literally. Journeying with his two oldest sons to Moscow, Pyotr returns with a devout new wife and a gift for Vasya from an odd stranger. Vasya can do nothing right in the eyes of her new stepmother but it isn’t until a new priest arrives in the village (determined to bring the fear of God to the northern people and save their souls) that more devastating effects threaten the village as the people begin neglecting the protective household spirits of old.
Though there are a lot of Russian fairy tale elements used in the novel, it isn’t necessary to be familiar with them before reading because such fairy tale stories, creatures, and themes are pretty universal and relatable. Similarly, the clash between older (and often rural) traditions with more institutional religious orders is a familiar one that is deftly handled in this novel. It can be easy, when dealing with such established characters/creatures/traditions for them to either fall flat in a new (novelized) form; thankfully, that is far from the case here. The lore never overshadows the original characters; it initially serves as a backdrop as the story unfolds before its important role becomes clearer and begins taking a more prominent role until it finally interacts with the original characters themselves on equal footing.
The way the novel is written and presented works beautifully. The frequent changes in narrative perspective (all third person) give the characters and story great depth and texture. While the reader is clearly meant to root for Vasya, those who oppose her (with perhaps one exception) are not heartless villains; they each have their own hardships to contend with, their own obstacles. The story may boast many fairy tale creatures, themes, and patterns, but it is far from childish. The stakes are intense and don’t shy from the dark or difficult; the ending (which I found immensely satisfying) is not the clean, happy ending that many modern readers are likely to associate with fairy tales.
There are a few characters whose early prominence seems to be misleading given that they’re almost entirely dropped from the story by the middle of the novel. Vasya’s older brother Alexei seems to be overly emphasized given how far into the background he fades. At the same time, these characters don’t detract from the rest of the story; they just function more as not-entirely-successful red herrings.
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden will be available for purchase January 10, 2017.