Review: The Bear and the Nightingale (Winternight Trilogy #1) by Katherine Arden

Rating: 8/10

Synopsis

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.

Review

I hope you are safe and doing well. Luckily for book lovers, fiction is just as immersive as ever which is especially useful in times like these. Whether you’re passing time or trying to distract yourself, I hope that you find refuge in stories that you love.

It’s been a hot minute since I’ve reviewed, and this review was long in the making! I’ve had The Bear and the Nightingale on my beside table for months, kind of reading it off and on in bursts in the midst of other happenings in my life. I’ve only just gotten around to finishing it, and wow – Katherine Arden has a winner here.

The Bear and the Nightingale is historical fantasy, an exploration of Russian folklore that is darkly charming. Vasya is the daughter of a “witch”, a woman who claimed that she could commune with the creatures of Russian folklore. Though her mother is long dead, Vasya is her mother’s child and can see these otherworldly beings like the domovoi (a hearth spirit) where others cannot. When Vasya’s father brings home a new wife, she punishes Vasya and forbids her from honoring the spirits. A religious zealot with a terrible fear of witchcraft, Vasya’s new mother is fully devoted to the new missionary to the village, Father Konstantin. Konstantin is at odds with Vasya, who sees her as the only thing standing between him and his claim on the village.

Unbeknownst to any of them, with the winter comes a dark force that threatens to devour them all.

The Bear and the Nightingale is a fun read because of the stark differences in tone between the first half and second half of the book. The first half is a charming introduction to Vasya, her father, and brothers and sisters, as well as the sweet old lady Dunya. It’s fun to see Vasya explore her world and the fairytale creatures that inhabit it, like the domovoi who lives in the hearth and the rusalka in the river. The kinship between the siblings and their gruff but loving father is really the core of the story.

Around halfway through the book, especially with the arrival of Father Konstantin. Konstantin hears the voice of god in his head to spread his mission to Vasya’s village. Inspiring fervent Christian devotion in the villagers leads to less offerings for the native spirits that inhabit the land. The force that takes their place is dark and lends a sinister and very horrific tint to the latter half of the book. It’s just as interesting and fun to read as the first half, but the tone does change and I enjoyed it immensely.

Arden’s prose is excellent, providing a beautiful frame for the story but never stepping on its toes. Overall, The Bear and the Nightingale was a joy to read. I’m interested to see what Arden does with future Winternight Trilogy books, especially concerning the end of this one.

If you’re looking for a sweet and honestly pretty spooky read, I’d recommend The Bear and the Nightingale.

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