Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale By Katherine Arden
The Bear and the Nightingale (The Winternight Trilogy #1) by Katherine Arden is a magical debut novel from a gifted and gorgeous voice. It spins an irresistible spell as it announces the arrival of a singular talent.
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.
A Sneak Peek Into “The Bear and the Nightingale”
It was late winter in northern Rus’, the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow. The brilliant February landscape had given way to the dreary gray of March, and the household of Pyotr Vladimirovich were all sniffling from the damp and thin from six weeks’ fasting on black bread and fermented cabbage. But no one was thinking of chilblains or runny noses, or even, wistfully, of porridge and roast meats, for Dunya was to tell a story.
That evening, the old lady sat in the best place for talking: in the kitchen, on the wooden bench beside the oven. This oven was a massive affair built of fired clay, taller than a man and large enough that all four of Pyotr Vladimirovich’s children could have fit easily inside. The flat top served as a sleeping platform; its innards cooked their food, heated their kitchen, and made steam-baths for the sick.
“What tale will you have tonight?” Dunya inquired, enjoying the fire at her back. Pyotr’s children sat before her, perched on stools. They all loved stories, even the second son, Sasha, who was a self-consciously devout child, and would have insisted—had anyone asked him—that he preferred to pass the evening in prayer. But the church was cold, the sleet outside unrelenting. Sasha had thrust his head out-of-doors, gotten a faceful of wet, and retired, vanquished, to a stool a little apart from the others, where he sat affecting an expression of pious indifference.
The others set up a clamor on hearing Dunya’s question:
“Finish the Falcon!”
“Ivan and the Gray Wolf!”
Little Alyosha stood on his stool and waved his arms, the better to be heard over his bigger siblings, and Pyotr’s boarhound raised its big, scarred head at the commotion.
But before Dunya could answer, the outer door clattered open and there came a roar from the storm without. A woman appeared in the doorway, shaking the wet from her long hair. Her face glowed with the chill, but she was thinner than even her children; the fire cast shadows in the hollows of cheek and throat and temple. Her deep-set eyes threw back the firelight. She stooped and seized Alyosha in her arms.
The child squealed in delight. “Mother!” he cried. “Matyushka!”
Marina Ivanovna sank onto her stool, drawing it nearer the blaze. Alyosha, still clasped in her arms, wound both fists around her braid. She trembled, though it was not obvious under her heavy clothes. “Pray the wretched ewe delivers tonight,” she said. “Otherwise I fear we shall never see your father again. Are you telling stories, Dunya?”
“If we might have quiet,” said the old lady tartly. She had been Marina’s nurse, too, long ago.
“I’ll have a story,” said Marina at once. Her tone was light, but her eyes were dark. Dunya gave her a sharp glance. The wind sobbed outside. “Tell the story of Frost, Dunyashka. Tell us of the frost-demon, the winter-king Karachun. He is abroad tonight, and angry at the thaw.”
“It is time to put aside dreaming.
Fairy tales are sweet on winter nights, nothing more.”
Dunya hesitated. The elder children looked at each other. In Russian, Frost was called Morozko, the demon of winter. But long ago, the people called him Karachun, the death-god. Under that name, he was king of black midwinter who came for bad children and froze them in the night. It was an ill-omened word, and unlucky to speak it while he still held the land in his grip. Marina was holding her son very tightly. Alyosha squirmed and tugged his mother’s braid.
“Very well,” said Dunya after a moment’s hesitation. “I shall tell the story of Morozko, of his kindness and his cruelty.” She put a slight emphasis on this name: the safe name that could not bring them ill luck. Marina smiled sardonically and untangled her son’s hands. None of the others made any protest, though the story of Frost was an old tale, and they had all heard it many times before. In Dunya’s rich, precise voice it could not fail to delight.
“In a certain princedom—” began Dunya. She paused and fixed a quelling eye upon Alyosha, who was squealing like a bat and bouncing in his mother’s arms.
“Hush,” said Marina, and handed him the end of her braid again to play with.
“In a certain princedom,” the old lady repeated, with dignity, “there lived a peasant who had a beautiful daughter.”
“Whasser name?” mumbled Alyosha. He was old enough to test the authenticity of fairy tales by seeking precise details from the tellers.
“Her name was Marfa,” said the old lady. “Little Marfa. And she was beautiful as sunshine in June, and brave and good-hearted besides. But Marfa had no mother; her own had died when she was an infant. Although her father had remarried, Marfa was still as motherless as any orphan could be. For while Marfa’s stepmother was quite a handsome woman, they say, and she made delicious cakes, wove fine cloth, and brewed rich kvas, her heart was cold and cruel. She hated Marfa for the girl’s beauty and goodness, favoring instead her own ugly, lazy daughter in all things. First, the woman tried to make Marfa ugly in turn by giving her all the hardest work in the house, so that her hands would be twisted, her back bent, and her face lined. But Marfa was a strong girl, and perhaps possessed a bit of magic, for she did all her work uncomplainingly and went on growing lovelier and lovelier as the years passed.
“So the stepmother—” seeing Alyosha’s open mouth, Dunya added, “—Darya Nikolaevna was her name—finding she could not make Marfa hard or ugly, schemed to rid herself of the girl once and for all. Thus, one day at midwinter, Darya turned to her husband and said, ‘Husband, I believe it is time for our Marfa to be wed.’
“Marfa was in the izba cooking pancakes. She looked at her stepmother with astonished joy, for the lady had never taken an interest in her, except to find fault. But her delight quickly turned to dismay.
“—And I have just the husband for her. Load her into the sledge and take her into the forest. We shall wed her to Morozko, the lord of winter. Can any maiden ask for a finer or richer bridegroom? Why, he is master of the white snow, the black firs, and the silver frost!’
“The husband—his name was Boris Borisovich—stared in horror at his wife. Boris loved his daughter, after all, and the cold embrace of the winter god is not for mortal maidens. But perhaps Darya had a bit of magic of her own, for her husband could refuse her nothing. Weeping, he loaded his daughter into the sledge, drove her deep into the forest, and left her at the foot of a fir tree.
“Long the girl sat alone, and she shivered and shook and grew colder and colder. At length, she heard a great clattering and snapping. She looked up to behold Frost himself coming toward her, leaping among the trees and snapping his fingers.”
“But what did he look like?” Olga demanded.
Dunya shrugged. “As to that, no two tellers agree. Some say he is naught but a cold, crackling breeze whispering among the firs. Others say he is an old man in a sledge, with bright eyes and cold hands. Others say he is like a warrior in his prime, but robed all in white, with weapons of ice. No one knows. But something came to Marfa as she sat there; an icy blast whipped around her face, and she grew colder than ever. And then Frost spoke to her, in the voice of the winter wind and the falling snow:
“Are you quite warm, my beauty?”
“Marfa was a well-brought-up girl who bore her troubles uncomplainingly, so she replied, ‘Quite warm, thank you, dear Lord Frost.’ At this, the demon laughed, and as he did, the wind blew harder than ever. All the trees groaned above their heads. Frost asked again, ‘And now? Warm enough, sweetheart?’ Marfa, though she could barely speak from the cold, again replied, ‘Warm, I am warm, thank you.’ Now it was a storm that raged overhead; the wind howled and gnashed its teeth until poor Marfa was certain it would tear the skin from her bones. But Frost was not laughing now, and when he asked a third time: ‘Warm, my darling?’ she answered, forcing the words between frozen lips as blackness danced before her eyes, ‘Yes…warm. I am warm, my Lord Frost.’
“Then he was filled with admiration for her courage and took pity on her plight. He wrapped her in his own robe of blue brocade and laid her in his sledge. When he drove out of the forest and left the girl by her own front door, she was still wrapped in the magnificent robe and bore also a chest of gems and gold and silver ornaments. Marfa’s father wept with joy to see the girl once more, but Darya and her daughter were furious to see Marfa so richly clad and radiant, with a prince’s ransom at her side. So Darya turned to her husband and said, ‘Husband, quickly! Take my daughter Liza up in your sledge. The gifts that Frost has given Marfa are nothing to what he will give my girl!’
“Though in his heart Boris protested all this folly, he took Liza up in his sledge. The girl was wearing her finest gown and wrapped in heavy fur robes. Her father took her deep into the woods and left her beneath the same fir tree. Liza in turn sat a long time. She had begun to grow very cold, despite her furs, when at last Frost came through the trees, cracking his fingers and laughing to himself. He danced right up to Liza and breathed into her face, and his breath was the wind out of the north that freezes skin to bone. He smiled and asked, ‘Warm enough, darling?’ Liza, shuddering, answered, ‘Of course not, you fool! Can you not see that I am near perished with cold?’
“The wind blew harder than ever, howling about them in great, tearing gusts. Over the din he asked, ‘And now? Quite warm?’ The girl shrieked back, ‘But no, idiot! I am frozen! I have never been colder in my life! I am waiting for my bridegroom Frost, but the oaf hasn’t come.’ Hearing this, Frost’s eyes grew hard as adamant; he laid his fingers on her throat, leaned forward, and whispered into the girl’s ear, ‘Warm now, my pigeon?’ But the girl could not answer, for she had died when he touched her and lay frozen in the snow.
“Now hear me. Before the end, you will pluck snowdrops at midwinter,
die by your own choosing, and weep for a nightingale.”
“At home, Darya waited, pacing back and forth. ‘Two chests of gold at least,’ she said, rubbing her hands. ‘A wedding dress of silk velvet and bridal-blankets of the finest wool.’ Her husband said nothing. The shadows began to lengthen and there was still no sign of her daughter. At length, Darya sent her husband out to retrieve the girl, admonishing him to have care with the chests of treasure. But when Boris reached the tree where he had left his daughter that morning, there was no treasure at all: only the girl herself, lying dead in the snow.”
3 Words to Sum Up This Book
BEDAZZLING, EXTRAVAGANT, DREAM-LIKE
Oh boy oh boy. Has it not been a hot minute since your girl wrote a book review. Or just a review in general. I know, I know. I have been bad. But what can I say, life and its curveballs y’all.
Recently, I just finished reading Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale. And it was absolutely splendid. It has been so long since I have been able to find a book that could suck me into the story so, plus I have been trying to re-pick up fiction novels again the past year to no avail, so I am extremely happy to be able to find out that could finally grab my attention by the boobs from start till finish.
Okay, I am really excited to talk about how Katherine Arden whips words into prose and managed to entice her readers in such a way that it doesn’t feel as if we are simply watching Vasya as the story unfolds but that we are also experiencing it with Vasya. The way Katherine Arden writes is just simply stunning. It has been a while since I was this immersed into a book before, but I really must say that The Bear and Nightingale series has really done it.
“Where am I?”
He shrugged. “Back of the north wind. The end of the world. Nowhere at all.”
While her storytelling style is good, however, at certain points––in the middle of the book––it does feel like Katherine is just adding details for the sake of making the book thicker. I mean hey, this could just be me babbling because I am not a frequent fantasy fiction reader, but for some reason, it just feels like she is giving us all the nitty-gritty detail and the readers have to slug through all that for such little reward. The plot itself in the first book––while unique––is admittedly quite slow. There was nothing really happening in the middle of the book until a bit closer to the ending where things just started setting off like fireworks.
Perhaps Katherine Arden thought it would have been good to give us a full-blown detail of Vasya’s background and how everything came to be for the readers to understand the characters’ motivation better––and kudos to Katherine Arden too for doing her homework cause it really shows that she has done a lot of research into the Russian culture. However, I feel like it would have been better if she spattered the details on Vasya’s background throughout the book rather than force-feeding it to her readers all at once. That would have made the book so much more enjoyable, at least for me.
VASYA AND FAMILY
To be quite honest, I don’t really have much to say about Vasya’s family. I will say that I can understand where they come from and why they do and say the things that they did, but that doesn’t mean I agree with it. And since my momma always told me to shut it if I don’t have anything good to say, I will hush it right here.
“Wild birds die in cages.”
Vasya however, has been amazing to read. She hasn’t always been the brightest as she would sometimes do and say things without thinking, but it is really interesting to see how her character grows and change little by little according to her age and environment. I like that she is hardheaded, yet still very mature and classy about it. She doesn’t really throw a fit when things don’t go her way, nor does she concoct nefarious plans (though I had wished she’d done more of that). No, Vasya takes things as they come––quite graciously too, if I may say so myself. As is the case with many young adult novels out there, there are times where I feel as if Vasya is so much more mature than her own age.
Especially for someone who was in her teens, I would have expected her to throw more fit and reacted more emotionally to things. But she has always been a very level-headed and quick character no matter what life throws at her. I guess on one hand it is interesting to finally see that even though a book/series is targeted towards young adults, authors still have to figure out a way to keep the attention of adult readers too who happen to read YA novels. Being an author is definitely no easy feat.
Perhaps it is just the 21st century in me, but by the time I’m 50% through with the book, your girl is already so done with the talk of marriage. Don’t get me wrong, I understand how things were in the past where women are just bred to get married young and have babies and take care of the house. I totally understand and have accepted it as a part of some countries’ culture––even to this day.
But my god did this book shove the marriage topic down its readers’ throat. It’s as if you just cannot for the life of you escape the topic of marriage. It is always there, chapter after chapter after chapter until the end of the book. Even after Vasya decided that she’d rather not get married instead, it is something that still followed her wherever she goes.
I get it. Women were to wed and give birth to a bunch of tiny ones, but there is seriously no need to mention it on almost every single page on how important marriage is for women. Like, we get it.
MOROZKO THE WINTER DEMON
I don’t know what it is about Russian folklore’s villains/demons, there is just something so mesmerizing about them. Like, I have read a few fictions with Russian culture as its backdrop and I am almost always very intrigued by the villains––it’s just something about the way they are written, perhaps.
“You do not know what you are; can you know what I am?”
Personally, I have always liked morally grey characters. More to question and more to figure out. Morozko isn’t exactly the kind of villain that is evil all the way––just like many creatures who are immortal––his characters are a lot more fluid and unpredictable, yet it is obvious that there is something about Vasya that kept him coming back. There were times when he’s aloof around her, rare times where he’s gentle but as for now, it is not possible to figure out what exactly is his motive with the girl.
It will be interesting to see how Morozko and Vasya’s relationship develops cause it seems like he will be appearing much more often in the book from here on out.
Another one of those case where basically nil happened through the first 80% of the book, but then all of a sudden it’s as if the author realizes that the book is ending and then proceed to cram all the plot in the last 20% of the novel.
That was exactly what happened in The Bear and the Nightingale. The first 80% of the book is basically just Vasya growing up, being a child, then being forced to marry. Then we reached the last 20% of the novel and all of a sudden everything goes into motion and people start dying. Authors really need to be better at pacing the story. Not to mention, the ending to this book was just so abrupt and easy. I was still in the midst of processing the story and before I know it, everything has already been wrapped into a pretty bow for me and the book is ending.
Hopefully, things get better in the second book, or else I will be deeply saddened to have to drop this series.
While there are a few things here and there that are still lacking, altogether I really enjoyed this book. Despite it being slow at some parts, I liked the overall idea. I just wished that Katherine Arden would amp up the emotional tension a little bit more because as of finishing book 1, The Bear and the Nightingale, I must admit that while I admire Vasya and her tenacity, I don’t really feel any type of emotional connection towards her. You know the feeling when you read a book, and when your favorite character cries or is hurt, you feel it too? Yeah, I am not yet feeling it here with the characters in this novel.
In regards to the romance in this book, there were hints of things becoming something more. But even if it does, with how big the age difference is between Morozko and Vasya, and how cautious Morozko is around her for whatever reason, I don’t think things will turn out to be as steamy as A Court of Thorns and Roses series by Sarah J. Maas (if you know, you know). So just keep that in mind.
Personally, your girl will continue on with this series. It is interesting enough that it kept me hooked to want to know more. I am excited to see where things are headed next for Vasya, and of course also for Morozko.
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