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The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
4.5
Book Name: The Bear and the Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Publisher(s): Del Rey
Formatt: Hardcover / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Fairy Tale
Release Date: January 10, 2017 (US) January 12, 2017 (UK)

As a fantasy reader who makes his living in marketing and communications, I am perhaps more jaded than most when it comes to books that are compared to some of the greatest in the genre prior to their release date. How many times have we seen books touted as “the next Lord of the Rings,” or a new author compared to George R.R. Martin, only to realize that it was marketing run amuck?

With that in mind, I was cautious about getting too excited about Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale, which had drawn favorable comparisons to the works of Naomi Novik and Neil Gaiman. After all, if you open a book expecting the next Neil Gaiman, you’re quite likely to walk away disappointed.

Somehow, Arden’s debut novel lives up to its incredible expectations.

The Bear and the Nightingale tells the story of Vasilisa, commonly called Vasya, whose family lives in the wilderness of northern Russia. It’s a challenging life, where harsh winters and creatures from Russian folktales alike can kill the foolish and unwary. Fortunately, Vasya’s father, who serves as the lord of the village, is clearly protective of his people, and most especially of his family.

After Vasya’s mother dies during childbirth, Vasya grows up with a strong will and the ability to interact with the creatures and household spirits that live invisibly among the villagers. From friendly creatures such as the domovoi and vazila to the dangerous vodianoy and bolotnik, Vasya lives a very different life from the rest of the village. Even as other villagers leave regular, absent-minded offerings to the household spirits, only Vasya can see and interact with them. It’s a skill she must keep secret for fear of being labeled a witch.

Things change when Vasya’s father decides she needs a strong motherly figure in the household, and he goes to Moscow to find a new wife. Vasya’s devout new stepmother shares Vasya’s ability to see the household spirits, but as a devout Christian, she considers them demons, and shrieks in terror whenever she sees them. She takes an instant dislike to her wild stepdaughter, and bans the villagers from leaving offerings to the household spirits, forcing Vasya to rebel to as the household spirits weaken and a terrifying new evil descends upon the village.

Vasya is an instantly likeable, courageous protagonist, and she resides in a world that we rarely see, similar to that of Novik’s Hugo-nominated Uprooted, but far more detailed. The book contains a steady smattering of Russian words, used in such a way that the context prevented confusion while drawing the reader deeper into the world and culture in which Vasya resides.
Arden was born in Austin, Texas, but has spent time living in Moscow, and majored in Russian in college. In addition to that experience, she clearly had to do substantial research to build a world that is so rarely seen in books, movies, or popular culture.

Vasya’s interactions with the household spirits are captivating, as each creature displays a unique personality. Some, such as the domovoi, are courageous in their own right, while others are terrifying in their cold, calculating hunger. Vasya’s ability even allows her to build a relationship with her family’s horses, allowing her to learn to ride – yet another skill deemed unfit for a proper young woman.

As a girl in a male-dominated culture, Vasya must not only defy the forces that threaten her village, but her well-meaning family and friends who can’t understand why she refuses to be a proper, demure young woman. Her father worries for her, concerned that once he is gone, Vasya will have no one to take care of her and ensure her happiness, inspiring him to make one mistake after another. In the course of his efforts to help Vasya, he creates entirely new problems that Vasya must overcome with only her courage and her wits.

Arden does an exceptional job of presenting Vasya as a young woman who clearly is not meant for life as a quiet housewife, who must find her own way in a world that just as clearly was never designed with her spirit and energy in mind.

The Bear and the Nightingale is scheduled for release on January 10, 2017, and marks the first book in a planned trilogy. Because of the blend of English and Russian words, and some of the more complex themes in the book, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for children, even though it refrains from sex and profanity.

For teens and adults, however, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a story and a world we haven’t seen before. I can see why previous reviewers have compared it to the works of Novik and Gaiman – after all, The Bear and the Nightingale and American Gods each have characters based on the same Russian god – but trust me: The Bear and the Nightingale stands all on its own.

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Rating: 8.7/10 (6 votes cast)
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, 8.7 out of 10 based on 6 ratings
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One Comment

  1. Joie says:

    I’m currently reading this, too, and am just as impressed!

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