Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale

Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale

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.

Partial synopsis provided by Goodreads.

The Bear And The Nightingale

Series: Winternight Trilogy #1 
Author: Katherine Arden
Publication Date: January 10, 2017
Publisher: Del Rey
Page Count: 336
Format: Hardcover
Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Romance, Retelling
Cover Artist: -

The Bear and the Nightingale (Winternight Trilogy, #1)The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

See my full review of this book on my blog along with others at: foalsfictionandfiligree.com

–The original folktale of Father Frost–
Once there was a woman who had both a daughter of her own, whom she loved, and a step-daughter, whom she hated. One day, the woman ordered her husband to take her stepdaughter out into the winter fields and leave her there to die, and he obeys. Morozko finds her there; she is polite and kind to him, so he gives her a chest full of beautiful things and fine garments. After a while, her stepmother sends her father to bring back the girl’s body to be buried, which he also obeys. After a while, the family dog says that the girl is coming back, and that she is beautiful and happy.

When the stepmother sees what her stepdaughter has brought back, she orders her husband to take her own daughter out into the fields. Unlike before, this child is rude to Morozko, and he freezes her to death. When her husband goes out to bring her back, the dog says that she will be buried. When the father brings back the body, the old woman weeps.

—————————————–
“The Bear is awake.”
“What bear?”
“The shadow on the wall. The voice in the dark. Beware the dead.”

This is one of those books that I may need to read more than once to fully grasp and appreciate. Even so, I really enjoyed the premise of this book. Eastern European folklore fascinates me, and is a world relatively unexplored in today’s literature. The Bear and the Nightingale is a retelling of both the story of Father Frost and Vasilisa the Beautiful (depicted below.) Unfamiliar with these tales, I enjoyed looking them up and getting to know more about Russian lore.

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Let’s start out with things that I liked:

#1 Once the story began to pick up, it was quite interesting. I loved the folklore and mythology and how they tied together (in some instances because not all of them worked.) I also really enjoyed how naturally the different presences and creatures fit into the story.

#2 The atmosphere. Every location is described very well; from large cities, to small, isolated towns, everything is painted with detail.

#3 For those who love a strong female lead, Vasya is your gal. She’s wild, untamed, unclaimable, lovely, and strong.

Things that I didn’t like:  

#1 There are a lot of characters in this book, and they all go by several names. I think this is fine and realistic in real-life situations, but in a book, it may be too much to include for the reader’s sake. At times, it is a chore to keep them all straight, and I actually think I missed some things in the tale because I was confused with whom was being focused on.

Character Breakdown: (of only more prominent characters)

Vasilisa/Vasya is the protagonist. At a young age, she meets Frost, better known as Morozko in this tale, and his brother. That initial interaction sets in motion her fate bound to the powers of old.

Konstantin is a priest who arrives to the village where Vasya’s family lives, in order to “redeem the souls” of those who reside there. Oh, the irony that this poor priest was swayed so. Konstantin starts out great; he’s pious, reserved, and even handsome. As time goes on, he begins to feel something towards Vasya, and it becomes creepy. It reminded me of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame with Claude Frollo and his reaction towards Esmeralda. He repeatedly fights with himself over his developing feelings for her, and tips him over the edge into a sort of “madness.” Later on, he is confronted by a voice (view spoiler) and follows its commands and commits many atrocities. In his quest for good, he ends up doing more harm.

Anna is the “evil” stepmother to Vasya, from the tale of Old Man Winter, which Dunya told a version of to the kids in the opening pages of the story. However, I didn’t really see her as being that evil; maybe more-so later on. She was raised in a Christian home, but was cursed with seeing demons, and everyone thought her crazy.

This alone didn’t make her evil. Vasya had the same ability, but people didn’t react to her in the same way they did with Anna. To them, Anna was a lunatic—someone to lock away. Even Konstantin had no sympathy for her, at any point in the story, which threw up a red flag for me on his nature immediately.

Morozko:
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.

The Bear: The evilbrother of Morozko, he appears as a one-eyed man, but can also transform into a massive bear. This guy/thing did his job and made me feel completely creeped out.

#2 The purpose of the plot was muddled for me. Obviously Vasya stays alive, which is the point original tale. To base this story from the original folklore tale though…it didn’t work so well for me. What is the message here? In the tale, the “unliked” girl is sent into the woods, and when confronted by Frost, she denies that she is cold, even though she is literally freezing to death. After a while, and out of what seems to be fondness for her strength, he finally lets her go. So, is the lesson to be that people who are humble (is that the correct word?) are always right? No, not always. This is one of those areas where a re-read would definitely benefit me.

#3 So, Morozko is literally death-incarnate. But in this book, he is seen as good. He doesn’t do anything to really make him seem like a force of “bad.” (Death in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it is a natural cause of living.) BUT, when Frost takes Vasya in when she is sent out into the wilderness, he is suddenly a romantic interest. This story could have easily gone down the road and into a “paranormal romance” with Vasya and the demon of death. At least that was the vibe I was getting. I definitely needed more direction on what stance Morozko took.

#4 Going back to the Bear, a.k.a. Medved, I feel like his backstory, and overall purpose, were wildly underdeveloped. Instead of his character naturally fitting in to the story, it seemed forced and…odd, at times. Don’t get me wrong, I liked his menacing presence, but I wanted more.

Overall, I liked this book. However, I think I’d benefit from a re-read before picking up its coming sequel in 2018.

Sexual content: Very minimal.
Vulgarity: None.
Violence: There was some, but nothing too gruesome.
Before the end, you will pluck snowdrops at midwinter, die by your own choosing, and weep for a nightingale.

My Rating: ★★★

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I am the author behind Foals, Fiction & Filigree. An all-encompassing blog about horses, books, and my art.

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