A really quick way to rise to the top of my to-read list is to write a fantasy novel in a setting I haven’t read before. I have had some interesting firsts recently with historical fictions about the Netherlands, Aztec fantasy, 1900’s fantasy, workplace fantasy, and now Russian fantasy. The Bear and the Nightingale is the debut of Katherine Arden, and based on Russian folklore. When I first learned about the book’s existence, I was intrigued. I am extremely unfamiliar with Russian culture, though a quick spin through wikipedia got me excited to see it in a fantasy setting.
The book tells the story of Vasilisa and her interesting life from start to finish (more or less). The beginning of the tale felt a bit slow to me. We start with the birth and early childhood of Vasilisa, something that was not quite riveting. However, as Vasilisa starts to grow so did my appreciation for The Bear and Nightingale. The story revolves around the clash of Catholicism and Russian spirituality. Vasilisa has a connection to the spirits of Russia, most importantly Frost, the embodiment of winter. The encroachment of Catholicism starts to eat away at the strength of spirits, and threatens to release a prisoner long held dormant.
Vasilisa was a interesting character to follow around, but I never grew too attached to her. The Bear and Nightingale’s strength for me came from bringing Russia’s folklore to life, and teaching me more about the subject. This merit however did not really do enough to make the book particularly memorable. I am finding it extremely hard to remember the feelings and thoughts about the story that I made note of for my review, and that in and of itself is becoming the review. The book as a whole had great prose, except for some overly descriptive scenes. In one instance Arden described someone “fluttering their eyelids like wounded birds” and I stopped for a good three minutes trying to imagine what that would look like. The world building was great, getting me excited about Russia, though I would have liked to see more of it. There were very exciting scenes at the Great Bazaar and Kremlin, but we only spent a moment in them compared to a large portion of time in the forest.
The book is a fresh reminder that fantasy can be more than elves, orcs, and dragons (though there is nothing wrong with those things). It was an interesting look into Russian culture (note: as far as I know, I am not Russian) and the story feels fairly satisfying through and through. However, I just can’t find that much to say about it and while I don’t regret my time spent reading The Bear and Nightingale at all, I am also not exactly clamoring for a sequel either. If the idea of a fantasy novel based on Russian folklore excites you, this could be a great book for you, but if you find yourself uncaring about the lives of Russian peasants in Siberia, you might want to skip this one.
Rating: The Bear and Nightingale – 7.0/10