Bite-Sized Book Reviews: “The Bear and the Nightingale”

It’s standard wisdom: Never judge a book by its cover.

Yet it’s hard not to when a book’s cover–and title–are so fantastic. Beautiful, atmospheric, and a bit eerie, these appealed to the fairy tale/folklore lover in me. Between these exterior flourishes and the novel’s story–main character Vasilisa dares condemnation as she uses her supernatural communion with creatures of Russian folklore and an alliance with winter demon Frost to safeguard her people from a nebulous dark–I knew Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale was a book I had to have.

I’m happy to say the cimmerian ambiance promised by the cover carried into the novel. The aesthetics throughout–whether descriptions of the rusalka (a water sprite), or the harsh beauty of a wintery Russian forest–were striking and resonant. Even now, months after finishing the novel, I can summon to mind a multitude of scenes, lovely and ominous alike. 

Arden also did a fantastic job communicating the nature of Russian folk spirits without overburdening her text. As someone unacquainted with Eastern European folklore, I felt capably guided through unfamiliar territory without becoming the victim of an educational treatise masquerading as a novel. Considering the amount of research undoubtedly required by The Bear, Arden’s restraint shows deftness and grace in her story-telling.

The novel’s historical setting was equally well-portrayed: a medieval Russia balanced between old world superstition and more newly-adopted Christian faith. The simultaneous syncretism and vibrating tension between the two belief systems lent the book a sense of the epic that expanded it beyond the boundaries of its setting.

In terms of character: both the human and the supernatural figures were adroitly managed. Even the most villainous members of Vasilisa’s household resist becoming evil archetypes of the mustache-twirling type. One could easily understand how they fell into the well-intention-yet-ruinous tracks they did, even as one’s blood curdled at their actions. To call up compassion for one’s fiends is no easily authorial task.

Relatedly, I appreciated Arden’s refusal to strip Vasilisa’s supernatural interlocutors of their beastly nature. Although certain denizens of the folklore realm do become Vasilisa’s friends, Arden never neuters them of their otherworldly and shadowy qualities and therefore preserves the sinisterly haunting elements that so add to the book’s magic.

Yet, for all the novel’s glowing qualities, I did feel its first chapters dragged somewhat. Overmuch emphasis was placed on the family narrative preceding Vasilisa’s birth (though some of this was necessary to communicate her extraordinary importance as a savior for her world). Her development into the gifted young woman at the novel’s heart also seemed a touch protracted.

Conversely, however, the book’s ending felt somewhat abrupt. I can appreciate Arden’s refusal to conclude things too tidily; much like her preserving the more savage elements of her northern sprites, this maneuver kept the novel from being overly saccharine. But upon reaching the last page, I felt a little jolted: “That’s it?” I thought. “And why did we spend so much time on Vasilisa’s siblings, only to have them drop out of the story half-way?” When I discovered that The Bear and the Nightingale is but the first of a series, I was somewhat mollified regarding these queries. But this effect still results in the book feeling less satisfying as a stand-alone, and makes the first and second halves of the novel seem slightly unbalanced, pacing-wise.

Overall, I would recommend Arden’s tale, particularly to lovers of the mystic, mysterious, and eerie. With the follow-on–The Girl in the Tower–coming out in just 9 days, there’s promise of an imminent remedy to sooth that itch for something more left after the close of volume 1.

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