The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
The biggest issue I had with The Bear and the Nightingale is that the titular Bear is not identified until halfway through, and the Nightingale does not make an appearance until the final fourth of the book! Does that make this a poorly titled novel? No. The title is inviting and poetic. My complaint is a good problem to have in a fantasy tale that is nearly flawless. I’d have given it a perfect rating, but I love bears so much that I cannot abide seeing one as a villain.
The Bear and the Nightingale opens in a medieval Russian household, where an old woman is telling fairy tales to the young children gathered around a hearth – an oven that serves as food-production, warmth, and a heated bed for the entire family. From a writing standpoint, this is a deft way to open a fairy tale novel because it invokes that special feeling that only fairy tales can impart. We are immediately transported into this cold, snowy landscape that we know will be full of magic and mystery, and Arden has set a strong tone that some authors never find.
We quickly meet our central characters, a noble family headed by the force that is Pyotr Vladimirovich. We also find that many of the names in The Bear and the Nightingale will be a heavy mouthful or even unpronounceable. Pyotr is a wealthy landowner in the harshest of Russian’s northern regions and is married to a woman named Marina who is part of a wholly different fairy tale – one of which we only get glimpses. They have a daughter named Vasya, who becomes the pivot around which this story spins.
Vasya is an ideal character. She is confident, not beautiful in a conventional sense but not unpleasing to look at, smart, mysterious, adventurous, and defiant. In short, she is the character we all want to write and Katherine Arden has beaten us to the punch. The only issue I have with Vasya, and this is nit-picking, is that she seems impervious. She does grow as the novel progresses – she is not given much choice in this regard – but there was never a moment where I feared for her in any way. She lacks the singular flaw that would mean failure for anyone else. Consequently, despite the impossible odds that she seems to face at every turn, and in weather that made me feel cold just reading about it, Vasya always triumphs because she’s Vasya. This does not ruin her as a character, and we can often safely rely on our protagonists to reach the end of the book, but it drains the tale of some tension that I believe Arden intended.
I’ll admit to an almost non-existent knowledge of Russian folklore. I found familiar names in this book, but only because of Russian influence on some traditional fairy tales, as well as the similarities to the Witcher folklore from Andrzej Sapkoswki – as a Polish writer, he probably draws from many of the same legends as Arden. Like many European folk tales, the legends from Russia are dark, cold, and frightening. There are no princesses in castles and very few knights to the rescue. There is a grim overtone to everything that is then made grimmer by the inclusion of Christianity. The clash between Christianity and traditional folk lore becomes a huge factor in deciding the fates of Pyotr’s and Vasya’s family, and it is a clash familiar to almost every tradition in the world. The invading-philosophy-meets-traditional-belief plot nearly always yields fascinating results. I love the direction that Arden takes with this culture-clash because she is not scared to write her mind.
The Bear and the Nightingale might have received perfect marks for me had I not been a little disappointed in the prose. There are some beautiful sentences here, and some metaphors that work incredibly well, but sometimes Arden’s structure feels stilted, and I wondered several times as I was reading whether or not there had been too much edited in the text and whether Arden fought for her lines or capitulated to the pressures on a first time novelist. I’m excited to see where she goes now that she has jumped this first hurdle and has the clout to defend her own abilities. There is no doubt that she has the chops to tell a wonderful story, create compelling, incredibly real characters, and draw a reader into her world. Obviously, I am speculating about what might have been left on the editing room floor. Either way, what she produces next is likely to outshine even this stellar first novel. That The Girl in the Tower, the second in her Winternight Trilogy, is already out shows a Brandon Sanderson-like ability to produce fiction. I do not usually read series entries very close together, but I am so intrigued by Katherine Arden’s world that I may dive right back in.
The truth is, The Bear and the Nightingale is one of the best debut novels I have ever read, and if this is Katherine Arden’s bold first step into novel-writing, she is going to be a titan. Her ability to create believable characters is second-to-none, and she tells a story that not only wraps itself up, but leaves the door open for future forays into the mind and and heart of Vasilisa Petrovna.