The Bear and the Nightingale is rooted in Russian fairy tales and mythic creatures, early Russian history back when Moscow paid tribute to the Mongol Empire, and spiritual warfare between Eastern Orthodox Christianity and the Slavic pagan beliefs of the peasantry. It’s a straightforward story and a compulsive page-turner (always a plus for me these days) with an engaging storyteller voice.
Vasilisa Petronova is the last daughter born to Pyotr Vladimirovich and his first wife Marina. Independent, inquisitive, and more than a little stubborn and unruly, Vasilisa is most at home inside the surrounding forest and amongst the guardian spirits inhabiting her home and the land. Everything changes when her father brings home two additions to his household: Anna Ivanovna, his second wife, a devout Christian who fears and despises the household spirits as demons, and Konstantin Nikonovich, a priest with a magnetic presence, powerful voice, and deep-seated need for devotion. As Konstantin instills fear within Pytor’s people, the guardian spirits wither, and the village’s strength weakens. But more is at stake than just the village. Medvev, the Bear, has been entrapped for several years, but he is slowly growing strong enough to break free and gorge himself on the fear of the world.
If you enjoy fairytale novelizations, The Bear and the Nightingale is fun reading. The narrative voice possesses an oral, melodic quality that imbues the story with sensual detail while evoking an otherworldly atmosphere. I was particularly impressed by the balance Katherine Arden achieved in rooting the story in just enough historical detail of her chosen time period to lend the plot some added complexity without losing the fairy tale-esque quality. Physical details—the food, the Russian winters, the ovens the family sleeps on for warmth, the guardian spirits—add further evocative verisimilitude.
Character-wise, Vasilisa is one of the least developed characters compared to Pyotr, Anna, Konstantin, and Dunya, Vasilisa’s nurse and surrogate mother. All of them possess considerable weaknesses concerning their treatment of Vasilisa, and these weaknesses make them three-dimensional by underscoring their motives and desires. Anna Ivanonva is the most outwardly cruel towards her step-daughter, but the narrative effectively contextualizes her anger through Anna’s lifelong fear of the “demons” she can see that no one else can and her bitter resentment that her brother married her off rather than keep his promise of sending her to a convent.
With Vasilisa, the narrative leans too heavily on fetishizing her wild, “otherworldly” appearance and her seeming naivete. Vasilisa herself swings between lack of awareness (she resists marriage and a convent because of the danger the village will be in without her, and her father, stepmother, and priest’s arguments that this is what women do fail to have any impact not because she disagrees, but because that reality is seemingly not part of her viewpoint) and an uncanny perspicacity (she sees right through Konstantin’s supposed selflessness and purity and names his fear-stoking agenda as the source of the village’s problems).
My other criticism is that the ending left something to be desired due to overly extended tension, Vasilisa’s efforts appearing to be doomed far too many times before something well and truly sticks. (Also why is this book titled “The Bear and the Nightingale” when the Nightingale only shows up fifty pages before the end?)
The Bear and the Nightingale is, in one word, solid. It’s a fun, entertaining read, and I enjoyed Katherine Arden’s take on Russian/Slavic creatures, fairy tales, and history.