The Bear and the Nightingale is an excellent fairy tale-inspired historical fantasy that should appeal to fans of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless. Katherine Arden has crafted a well-researched, beautifully written, and overall marvelously realized debut novel that nonetheless has some deep and unsettling flaws that I expect will keep it from being among my favorite novels of 2017 and, frankly, make it somewhat unlikely that I will return to the series (this is the first of a planned trilogy).
First, the good.
If you like historical fantasy or fairy tale retellings, this one is a great choice. Arden has chosen a couple of somewhat obscure-to-Anglophone-readers fairy tales to use as the backbone of her story, and she’s chosen a setting–circa 14th century Russia–that isn’t widely used. Both of these factors set The Bear and the Nightingale nicely apart from the ongoing glut of retold and reimagined fairy tales on the market. These things are always a dime a dozen, so it’s refreshing to see something original being done in the genre, and to have an original idea coupled with a well-researched setting that offers a great sense of place is something really special.
I also kind of love that The Bear and the Nightingale isn’t a romance, though it has some romantic, in the literary sense, elements. Instead, it’s a bildungsroman of sorts, beginning before the birth of its primary protagonist, and Vasilisa grows from precocious child to independent young woman over the course of the novel. Romantic relationships barely figure into the story at all, and it instead focuses on exploring Vasilisa’s relationships with her family and community in order to explore bigger ideas about tradition, religion, gender equality, and growing up. Too often, books like this focus primarily on getting their heroine heterosexually paired off and settled down at the end, so I’m always glad to read something that avoids that narrative that domestic partnership and nuclear familial conventionality are the ultimate happy ending. The somewhat ambiguous, but hopeful, ending of The Bear and the Nightingale suits me far better.
Sadly, while the good parts of The Bear and the Nightingale are excellent, the bad parts are pretty terrible. Mostly, the bad parts all involve Vasilisa’s stepmother, Anna Ivanovna, for whom everything is terrible all the time.
**Spoilers below this line.**
Like Vasilisa, Anna can also see the household spirits that hang around human dwellings being fed and revered by servants and peasants, only Anna–raised in Moscow and educated as a strict Orthodox Christian–perceives these creatures as demons and thinks herself mad. Anna’s dream is to become a nun as she believes that she will be safe in a convent. Unfortunately, she’s also the daughter of a prince, so she’s instead forced to marry Vasilisa’s father, Pyotr, whose older children are all older than Anna and who may even be old enough to be Anna’s grandfather. Regarded by others in the book (and, judging from the way he’s written, by the author) as a kind man, Pyotr nonetheless rapes his young wife repeatedly, even though she cries every night.
You might think from this introduction to Anna Ivanovna that she is going to be a foil for Vasilisa, that their similarities might be deeply mined for their rich thematic potential, and that Anna will be treated humanely and with dignity in the narrative. You would be wrong.
Sure, Anna functions as a sort of foil for Vasilisa, but the two characters never have a positive interaction in which they might discover any common ground or shared experiences between them, and Anna’s religious beliefs are portrayed as something between stupidly irrational and actively malicious. Anna’s trauma, as a child (or at least extremely young) bride and rape victim, is never examined, and we’re given no insight at all into the struggles she must have had as a teenager herself being thrust into the roles of wife and mother in a strange place with people she doesn’t know at all. Instead, the word most used to characterize Anna is “shrill,” and she’s increasingly shown, as the book goes on, to be petty, jealous, spiteful, and caring only about her own offspring’s prospects.
In the end, Anna is unceremoniously killed as part of the novel’s climax and left callously unmourned. It’s a tragically ugly depiction altogether of a woman who deserves so much better than she got. The Bear and the Nightingale is being touted as a book with strong feminist sensibilities, but the reduction of Anna Ivanovna, a character with easy opportunities for complexity, to an archetypal Evil Stepmother only undermines any feminist points the author is trying to make. Both Anna and Vasilisa are oppressed by patriarchy, at home, in their communities, and in their country. They have a lot in common and much that they could teach each other if given the opportunity. Even if that’s not the story Arden wants to tell, Anna Ivanovna doesn’t need to die for Vasilisa Petrova to be emancipated, and the fact that Anna’s rapist is mourned more than she is made me furious.
There is a lot to like about The Bear and the Nightingale, but I don’t think I can forgive Katherine Arden for Anna Ivanovna.
This review is based on a copy of the book received from the publisher through NetGalley.