Rating:★★★//magical yet lopsided
Favorite Line: All my life,” she said, “I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.
I’m so sad to say how disappointed I am with this book. I really wanted to love it, but the more I read the more out of love I fell with it.
I chose this book solely on the beautiful cover and the Russian setting…and these were really the only two things I ended up loving about the book–there were things I liked, but not loved.
The setting was perfect! The Katherine Arden clearly described the Russian forests and the isolation of the Russian north that it felt like I was watching it play out before me. The house and village where the main characters live, along with the marketplace and the palace in Moscow also became a realistic place in my mind instead of an adaptation in the book.
The plot moved along at a slower pace, which I actually thought worked for the book because I felt it emphasized the long, drawn out winters they had to endure. No, it wasn’t the speed of the book that bothered me, it was just the plot itself.
Book Description via Goodreads:
At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.
After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.
And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.
As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.
Some mild spoilers ahead:
I am a big fan of fairy tales and fantasy books, but what I disliked so much about this book was the balance of powers.
This book deals with good vs. evil, essentially. Vasilisa has the gift of sight–she can see supernatural beings and she can speak to them, whereas most people in her village cannot see them, they only leave them offerings. Vasilisa befiends the household beings, becoming their ally and companion. These beings are seen as good because they take care of the household and protect them.
Then, when her father remarried and her stepmother comes in, the beings are in danger for the stepmother also sees them and sees them as demons. Then when a priest/iconographer comes to the village, she pleads with him to help get the demons away. He does by preaching of their evil ways and the village agrees to stop leaving offerings for them without any visible protest.
Soon evil demons come along and the good beings cannot fend them off because of they are weak, so Vasilisa gives them her own food and blood to make them strong.
Ok, so the balance is off for me because there are lots of good demons and only one bad, but then there are multiple bad religious people but no good ones (or at least the good ones play a small small role). What I was hoping for, and actually expecting because it is a Russian themed book, was a good and bad representative from each side. Russian books always seem to have a representative from all possible sides, and that is one reason why they are such strong novels. Even if the ending had remained the same (which I actually liked the very end) this novel would have been so much stronger if there was a good religious person offering help, instead of just the corrupt iconographer who offering punishment and guilt.
There was a wonderful opportunity for this balance but for whatever reason it was over looked. Sasha, Vasilisa’s brother, joins a monastery because he feels compelled in his heart to do God’s work. He would have been a perfect character to expand and serve as a positive religious character, but instead he is dropped out of the narrative and only mentioned a few other times.
It wasn’t until after I finished the book that I learned this was the first of three, which actually gave me some relief because without a sequel, there are multiple plot holes. Hopefully the sequel sorts them out.
Reflecting back it seems as if the book started off as a standalone but then halfway through realized it was actually apart of a trilogy so then began setting up for the second part and in doing so failed to finish what it had started. Again, I think the novel would have been stronger had it just acted as a stand alone and filled in a few of those plot holes.
The plot of the conversion of Russia is so interesting because it happened similarilly in Scandinavia-the people converted but still held onto their previous pagan traditions. This plot as a story is perfect, but it seems the people in this story (as portrayed in the narrative) must have seen some good reason to convert and abandon their former ways, but this was not shown to us, and it weakened the plot for me. There is the arguement that the priest was so convincing and smooth talking that he swayed the people into converting, but there was nothing said or done by him that convinced me of that–he just seemed like a grumpy old hermit who wanted to be left alone.
Another problem I came across actually stems from the title. Aside from it being a beautiful title, why is this book called The Bear and the Nightingale? The Bear I understand, but I won’t spoil it, and the Nightingale I thought I understood until the actual Nightingale came into the book and then it made no sense whatsoever, unless I’m completely missing something.
So what did I like? As I said, the setting was amazing; Russia comes alive in this book. The folktale aspect was pretty cool too, it brought in a lot of interesting mythical creatures and characters. Aside from Vasilisa, who was a good character, two other characters I really enjoyed were Alexei, Vasilisa’s brother, who is a constant strength in her life, and Dunya, her grandmother who raised her and taught her the folktales. These characters are wonderful, but all the others I either disliked or was more or less indifferent to.
I really wanted to like this book, but as it turns out it just wasn’t the book for me. By part 3 I was so uninterested in the ending that it was a push to finish it. I’m happy I did finish it, and I will probably pick up the second one when it comes out, and hopefully I like that one better!