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.** Continue reading Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden