YA Book Review

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

“…though the story of Frost was an old tale, and they had all heard it many times before.” (Arden, p. 5).

The Bear and the Nightingale will immerse you in to a world of Russian folklore and faerie tales. This story will feel old and familiar, all at once. It is magical and lyrical and will enchant you from page one.

The Plot: Vasilisa is the last thing her mother sees before she passes. Her life is born from magic. She grows up in the Russian wilderness, listening to folklore and faerie tales alongside her siblings, and leaving offerings for the creatures of superstitions. All seems well until her father brings home a new, christian bride, Anna. This new bride brings household changes and misfortune and the arrival of a christian priest set with the task of putting the fear of god in to the people of the village. But with this fear comes the suffering of the creatures of the folklore, for they are real and able to be seen by both Vasilisa and Anna. Vasilisa must make a choice to give in to the wants of her stepmother and the priest, take her place as a woman in the kitchen or convent, or to do what she can to save the creatures and her father’s suffering lands. She must step in to the world of the old faerie tales.

“If he goes on as he has, all the guardians of the deep forest will disappear.” (Arden, p. 138).

I was hooked from page one. The Bear and the Nightingale feels like an old faerie tale that would be told at bedtime, as those in the story are told by Dunya, the children’s’ nurse. I enjoyed how the author brought life to these Russian faerie tales and traditions. It felt like a magical world where it was normal for families to leave offerings for the creatures of folklore in exchange for plentiful crops or a warm, safe house. I feel like I could compare the majority of this story to The Mists of Avalon with the traditions and beliefs of the old religion being overpowered and forbidden by the christians, and with this over-powerment comes the death of the magic in the old ways. I find comparison in this story to The Beast Is An Animal because of its dark, creepy faerie tale nature/ I also find a pleasant comparison between Vasilisa and Merida from Brave.

Vasilisa is brave, curious, determined, and independent. She is fierce and does not want to submit to her pre-determined role as a house wife. She has a way with nature, animals, and the creatures of folklore similar to Snow White. She is the stuff of faerie tales, a heroine in her own right. She truly connects with the world around her, holds a high love for her family, and is bullied by an evil stepmother.

“…you are a creature as we are, formed raw from the powers of the world…You are not formed for convents, nor yet to live at the Bear’s creature.” (Arden, p. 255).

Anna has an interesting role in the story. Her background is even more intriguing, and shapes her to be the cruel, evil villain of the story. Anna can see the folkloric creatures, but believes them to be demons. She becomes highly devout in her christian faith, believing it will save her from the sight that she shares with Vasilisa. Anna uses this belief to harass and condemn Vasilisa. She stops at nothing to get rid of her stepdaughter, truly believing that this will fix the problems that she and her priest brought to the village.

“I see–things. Demons, devils. Everywhere. All the time.” (Arden, p. 111).

The story has many strong male characters, such as Vasilisa’s father, Pyotr, and her brothers, Kolya, Sasha, and Alyosha. Pyotr is a strong family man. He does all that he can to care and provide for his family. He is a good role model on his sons, and this results in his sons becoming good, family men. Vasilisa’s brothers show her and her sisters true love, and though all the men in the family reinforce the belief of a woman’s place in this time, they do it out of love because it is what’s expected.

Overall, the story is beautiful and magical. It is also dark and unique and offers a true faerie tale feel. I am looking forward to book 2 in the series!

“…Vasya saw a fir-grove, and firelight glancing between the trees, spilling gold into the snow.” (Arden, p. 312).

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10 thoughts on “The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

  1. This is one of my favourite reads so far this year, and I had the exact same feeling of being hooked from page one and completely immersed in the world and its fabulous characters. Can’t wait for book two!

    Liked by 1 person

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