REVIEW: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
May 24, 2017
SYNOPSIS: At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.
After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.
And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.
As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.
GENRE: Historical, Fantasy, Fiction
RATING: ★★★☆☆/ 3 slightly shaky stars.
REVIEW: I received this book from Penguin Random House in exchange for an honest review.
THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE was a bit of a bumpy experience for me. I didn't dislike it, in fact I would have a hard time pinning down exactly where I felt it didn't work...which is, of course, what this whole book reviewer thing is about (throws hands up in exasperation). But perhaps it was just something about the cadence of the words or the or the fact that I was reading a very Winter-y tale in hot weather. I just couldn't find that magical connection to the story that would suck me in. So I was left bobbing up and down, just on the surface, for the entire book.
It's an incredibly intriguing idea and story. There is a dark magic and stark fantasy element that I tend to find in Russian folklore and the author manages to capture that feeling. In the vein of Russian literature, there are also an abundance of characters, some important, some not-so-important, but it creates a lot of names to keep track of over the many years this tale extends. I think this contributed to that up and down feeling I had for the book. We would spend time learning about characters that didn't make it to the end of the book, not because they died, but because when everything came together for the important climactic moment, these characters weren't present, emotionally or physically. It seemed as if they had been created simply so their absence could be noted.
The story started strong. The first few chapters were a wonderfully dark set-up but after that the words started to stagnate. Then it would pick up again, pulling me in, until the urgency seemed to taper out. This happened a number of times leaving my disinterested with the bumpy experience. At times it was boring but then a new creature would show up to delight and intrigue me. Then the ending was an unstoppable train, seemingly cramming all the energy that I found lacking in other areas into the last couple chapters. Overall, I just found it frustrating.
And still, for all of that, I don't seem to dislike the book. There are some wonderfully colorful and evil characters that been created here. It's one of those strange situations in which, other than our heroine, you don't actually like anyone, because the characters aren't exactly likable, but you still enjoy reading about them. It's very confusing when trying to put the experience into words and I'm probably not making any sense, but there you go.
So that's how I arrived at 3 stars. I think I saw that there will be a sequel to this book and I don't think I will continue but I can also see how other readers will find a better connection the book than I did and jump at the chance for more. So maybe don't take my review as the only word on the subject (not that I'm narcissistic enough to assume that you do) but explore a little more when deciding if this is a book for you!