Book Feature Series: The Bear and the Nightingale
Updated: Jun 1, 2020
The wonderful thing about paperbacks is they'll instantly share with you how loved they are. As you'll see from the above photo, this one has been loved well, and its life has just begun. This seemed a proper book to kick off my feature series, where I'll share some of my favorite stories with you.
Katherine Arden's debut novel captivated me from the first page, reading like a dark fairytale. But the grit and strength of Vasilisa "Vasya" Petrovna kept me turning the pages. Set in medieval Russia, following the introduction of Christianity to the historically pagan population, Arden tackles the tumultuous marrying of two opposing beliefs. After a zealous priest, who is both infatuated and repulsed by Vasya, is reassigned to their small village, Vasya must navigate between the spirits of Russian folklore who seek her help, skeptical villagers, and a priest on the verge of insanity, if she's to escape forced matrimony or a monastery. But when the stakes rise with the entrance of the Bear and Morozko, brothers whose conflict will force her to choose a side, Vasya learns she must fight to save her family and the lives of the very villagers who'd see her gone... whichever way that must be.
So, what did I love most about this book?
The characters - The characters feel unique, all with their own quirks and faults. Of course, Vasya is the character to write home about. In a world where women must know their place in the home, Vasya finds it impossible to conform. She's wild and untamed, preferring the company of horses and the call of the open road to matrimony or the "work of women" - albeit in a reckless fashion. Vasya is mold-breaking and ahead of her time, which makes for interesting conflict and is a wonderful conversation starter for issues we still experience as women in the present day.
The setting - I'll admit I hadn't been drawn to Russian related work since surviving Dostoyevsky in college, but something about Arden's novel made me curious - it called to me in some way. Set deep in the Northern country of Russia, I was easily lost again and again to the woods surrounding Vasya's village. I found the time period interesting, and as I read through Arden's Winternight Trilogy, I was increasingly immersed in the politics and intrigue of the time.
Important topics tackled - I recall reading one review of Arden's work, which described the book as an attack on Christians. I didn't find this to be so. I read the work as an exploration into a tumultuous time for many reasons - religion being one of them. And though the village priest is weak and unstable, I didn't interpret that as a reflection of his religion, but a reflection of his own weak and prideful nature. He's a man who signed up for the job for the wrong reasons, and he thrives on fear and power. This is an important conversation to be had, as there are "bad" people with ill intentions in leadership roles in every religion, profession - the list goes on. It's our job in society to push these bad apples from positions of power. As you read deeper into the series, characters shine in their role as monks - Vasya's own brother for one. And though I won't delve further into this deep topic in this particular post, it's worth mentioning there's much to be learned and discussed from the characters and the history of this time period - women's rights to name another.
The writing - And finally, Arden truly has a gift for storytelling. The way in which the story unfolds is rhythmic, and she reveals information to the reader in such a wonderful fashion. The word choices, the pacing, the tone - it culminates into something beautiful, yet accessible.
Of course, there's the slightest promise of a strange romance, a fast-paced ending, and much more. I could drone on, but I'll just leave you with these high points. Have you read The Bear and the Nightingale? I'd love to know if you enjoyed the story as much as I did - leave a comment below!