Review of “The Bear and The Nightingale” by Katherine Arden

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The first book in the series by Katherine Arden takes hold of its readers and carries them away on a truly inspirational journey. The young Vasilisa grows up in her fathers village listening to the stories her nurse tells her family. They are tales of Russian folklore with ancient gods that walk the winter woods, tend to fires, and protect their households. With the arrival of one priest however, their belief system becomes altered. They are encouraged to honour Christianity as their sole belief and leave behind the household “demons” as they are called.

The concept of belief is a powerful one in this book. The creatures of the household that so few are able to see, were called upon long ago from the need for something to believe in. They were willed to existence by necessity, and the less offerings they receive, the weaker they become. Even the frost demon himself, the king of winter, otherwise known as Death was created. He says this to Vasya claiming he was born from the minds of those who believe. They wanted to believe that when they or their loved ones die, they are led peacefully into the afterlife. This belief gives the world something to hold on to, making the world a little less frightening.

Another overlying theme that is present in this book is magic. Vasyla struggles with acceptance in her community because they believe she is a witch. However, when examining her actions throughout the book, it can be found that she was simply more attentive and determined than most. She learned how to ride tackless which may seem shocking to those in the story. But it is indeed possible in real life, it takes trust and experience between the horse and rider. Vasyla possesses a rare gift with these beautiful creatures that only a “man” would be congratulated for in this time period. Overall, was her gift really magic? No. Magic was not involved in her learning to ride (with the exception of her enhanced ability to communicate with the creatures which the villagers did not know about anyway).

Fear was also a prominent theme within Arden’s book. It appeared as a weakness that brought its victims closer to death. In this story, fear attracts evil because without someone fearing them, they lose some of their power. The priest was a figure who was inhabited wholly (holy aha) by fear. The goddess of the lake was attracted to this fear and planned on eating him before Vasyla saved him. He as a character, brought fear with him into the village. Spreading it amongst the people so that they too felt that pain. The more fearful they grew, the more susceptible to great evil they became.

I found that collectively, these themes created a wonderful foundation for a story unlike many I have read before. I am quite the sucker for fairy tales, but this book stood out amongst the books I am most used to. The incorporation of Russian folklore was excellent in the sense that it brings a different cultural experience into the lives of its readers. While greek mythology is highly popularized in fiction works such as “Percy Jackson and the Olympians”, Russian folklore is not as common. At least not from my experience. I love a book that slips away from what the world has deemed popular and creates its own ideas.

I highly recommend this book to those who…

  1. have an interest in folklore and fairytales
  2. have an appreciation for a strong female lead
  3. love a darker twist

Got a fantasy book you’d like me to review? Give me a comment below!