The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden is not released until January 2017, but I already know that it will be amongst my top ten list of next year. I adore immersive, dark, and atmospheric folklore retelling. This book dishes all of these elements up and more, here’s a sneak peek as to why you should pre-order this beautiful book.
Summary: In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, a stranger with piercing blue eyes presents a new father with a gift – a precious jewel on a delicate chain, intended for his young daughter. Uncertain of its meaning, Pytor hides the gift away and Vasya grows up a wild, willful girl, to the chagrin of her family. But when mysterious forces threaten the happiness of their village, Vasya discovers that, armed only with the necklace, she may be the only one who can keep the darkness at bay.
1. Cover Love
I’ve just realised in all of my Pre-Release Thoughts post, I inevitably begin with a gush about covers. I blame it on my obsession with bookstagram. The UK cover is especially gorgeous with its intricate, colourful illustrations – each carefully linked to the plot. I also love the US cover for capturing the wintry mood of the novel.
2. A Rarely Seen Side To Russia
While there have been several notable Russian influenced fantasy in the YA genre, The Bear and the Nightingale sets itself apart with its unique setting in the Russian Middle Ages. In times before the tsars and Romanov splendour, there was a Russia sequestered in the magic of nature – a place rarely visible in both fiction and non-fictional documentation.
The book used a lot of Slavic mythology, with beings such as the rusalka and domovoi playing pivotal roles in the book. It also addresses the Christinisation via the journey Vasya undergo throughout the book. There’s a compelling story in the delicate balance between the practice old faiths and new religion.
Note: I was a bit nervous when I began this book, as the author’s note made a reference to the fact she ‘sought to render Russian words in such a way that retain a bit of their exotic flavor’. However, in so far as I can tell, the historical and folklore aspects of the Russian culture have been treated with respect. There are no harmful cultural appropriations or othering of Russian mythology or characters. Also note that I am not a learned student in either the Russian language or history, so I defer to other bloggers in this regard.
3. An Evocative Fairy Tale All Its Own
While The Bear and the Nightingale draws upon both pre-existing fairy tale narratives (e.g. Vasilisa the Beautiful) and tropes (the wicked stepmother, the promise, the indomitable maiden) – it also stands on its own as distinctive and remarkable story. I adore fairy tale retelling, especially ones that both reminds me of old storybook while surprising me in its own way.
4. Prose I Could Read All Day Long
I absolutely loved the rich, exuberant, and often-time witty writing in this novel – it worked in perfect contrast with the crisp winter chill of the book’s setting. The writing is reminiscent of Catherynne Valente’s work in Deathless, or Naomi Novik’s tantalizing Uprooted. Here are some of my favourite extracts from the book:
Dread settled over the village: a clinging, muttering dread, tenacious as cobwebs.
Frost-demons have no interest in mortal girls wed to mortal men. In the stories, the bird-prince and the wicked sorcerer – they only come for the wild maidens.
5. Captivating Characters and Relationships
The book is populated with a wide array of characters, all of different backgrounds and motivations. While many of these characters performed villainous acts throughout the novel, I loved that they all had clear ambition and traits that made these understandable.
Vasya was a lady after my own heart. While we often see head-strong heroine who are ‘not like other girls’ in fiction, I thought Vasya felt very authentic and relatable. Her relationship with her siblings, her father, and Dunya was definitely a highlight for me. This is also that rare book where romance is minimal, yet I was hopelessly pulled in by all the dynamic and complex interactions between the characters.
In short, I am absolutely in love with this book and would not hesitate to recommend it – especially if you’re after a riveting read to get you through a long winter night. Let me know if you’ve read it or planning to check it out! Check back closer to the release date for my full review.