“Will you tell her? asked the mare. “Everything?” the demon said. “Of bears and sorcerers, spells made of sapphire and a witch that lost her daughter? No, of course not. I shall tell her as little as possible. And hope that it is enough.”
I have loved many books in my life. I’ve loved books that tell of fantasy, friendship, and adventure, but I have never loved a book liked I love The Bear and the Nightingale. One of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read, it reached deep into my soul fall truly in love with this book. Bear and the Nightingale is on the list of books I wish I could reread over for the first time. I could talk all day about how beautiful this book is to me.
Where does one begin describing their favorite book? This book is magical. The writing is lyrical, it is everything I could ever want in a book. This book is truly a centuries-old fairytale. Russian fairy tales are intertwined to make for a brand new fairytale. A story about family dynamics, gender roles in society, and faith vs tradition are wrapped up in beautiful prose.
“All my life,” she said, “I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.”
The Bear and the Nightingale tells the story of a girl named Vasya and her bravery in keeping her family safe from horrors that seem to be right out of the stories her nursemaid would tell her. Vasya has the special ability to talk with some of the magical creatures from her nursemaid, Dunya, stories. She befriends these creatures and in turn, they befriend her and teach Vasya the secrets of the magical world.
Vasya’s wild and care-free nature is strained when her father takes a new bride who also can see the creatures. While both Vasya and Anna can both see the creatures, Anna considers them to be demons and treats Vasya cruelly for acknowledging them.
“It is a cruel task, to frighten people in God’s name.”
Then an arrogant priest is sent to the village dreaming of a higher calling. But after talking to Anna about the old ways of honoring the magical creatures, he decides he is the village’s salvation. Fearing demons are everywhere, the priest uses fear and intimidation in the village. Frightened for their souls, the village slowly follows the priest’s crooked ways and turn away from past tradition.
With the priest and Anna’s own cruelty, Vasya finds herself even more of an outcast. But a frost-demon has taken an interest in her wild heart. He tells her stories of the old ways and of his wicked brother. Thus begins the tale of a girl, a frost-demon, a bear and the nightingale.
“Solovey will take me to the ends of the earth if I ask it. I am going into the world, Alyosha. I will be no one’s bride, neither of man nor of God. I am going to Kiev and Sarai and Tsargrad, and I will look upon the sun on the sea.”
I love many things about The Bear and the Nightingale, but a few things really connected me to the story: the character arcs, the setting, and the deeper themes of the story.
Vasya is probably one of my favorite female characters of all time. She is a very strong-willed, compassionate, care-free protagonist and it’s easy to fall in love with her. We get to see Vasya grow from a child loved by her family for her antics to a young girl who is desperate to stay free. Her need for independence is probably the compelling part of this book.
“Wild birds die in cages.”
The antagonists of this story are very complex because while the main villain is the Bear, the villains in Vasya’s immediate life are her stepmother and the foreign priest. The stepmother is a perfect foil for Vasya because she can also see the magical creatures but to her, these creatures are not friends but demons who need to be purged. She takes her anger out on Vasya and her cruelty towards her stepdaughter was really the true villain to Vasya’s life. I even consider the priest a villain in the way he strokes animosity and anger toward Vasya. His hatred for her masks underlining feelings he can’t define towards her. Instead of confronting his own arrogance, he blames all of his problems and the problems in the village on Vasya.
Katherine Arden has absolutely stunning writing. I keep forgetting this is a debut because the visuals the reader can get is astounding. You really feel a part of the story.
The setting for this book has everything:
* Characters who are good, bad and somewhere in-between
*mythology and folklore
If you’re looking for a great wintery read or dark fantasy with great themes, and even better character arcs, The Bear and the Nightingale is for you. The audiobook is also beautiful because you actually feel like you are listening to one of Dunya’s stories.