The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Digital Audiobook narrated by Kathleen Gati
Published by Del Rey Books on January 10, 2017
Series: Winternight Trilogy #1
Genres: Fairy Tale Retellings, Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Fiction, Historical, Historical Fiction, Young Adult
Length: 323 pages or 11 hours, 48 minutes
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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.
This is a beautifully written story, but I highly recommend reading it instead of listening to the audiobook.
There were some things that Kathleen Gita did extraordinarily well. Her Russian accents and pronunciations are lovely and flowed well, but it was in the narrative itself that she lost me. Her reading is very flat and reminded me of an AI robot in everything except the dialogue. Fortunately, The Bear and the Nightingale is heavy on dialogue and storytelling, so I was able to listen all the way through. The quality of the reader is huge when you are listening to an audiobook, and if they’re not just right, it can completely ruin the experience. So I recommend reading a physical copy in this case.
Outside of the technical aspects, I really liked this book. I don’t read enough fairytales and retellings outside the western European tradition, and starting this book just as we got our first snowfall here in New England added to the frozen aesthetic. Katherine Arden did a beautiful job of bringing the story to life, from the harsh setting to the mythology around Vasilisa’s little home.
A lot of people I follow have noted the lengthy beginning of the novel, including scenes with Vasilisa’s mother, as well as her relationship with her oldest brother and sister. I am inclined to agree so far – there’s a lot at the beginning of the book that could have been left out for the purposes of this story. At the very least, it could have been provided in a novel. Here’s the thing – I’ve only read The Bear and the Nightingale, so I’m not sure if any of this applies to the other two books in the trilogy. It may end up being important later on, but generally, the first hour or so of this could have been summarized elsewhere, or cut completely.
Beyond the mythology – which I genuinely loved – Arden did an excellent job of bringing her characters to life and making them three-dimensional. This is a constant issue in fairytale retellings, which often lean toward romantic interludes and sparkle in place of depth. Vasilisa is brave, but also reckless, and she was not quite kind, but a tolerable girl. The protagonist is not entirely loveable, and the villains not entirely wicked. It’s a great balance, and so frustrating that I could not just flat out hate Anna. Vasilia’s sibling relationships, especially that with her brother Alyosha, are wonderful. Sibling relationships in books can be complicated or non-existent, but it always warms my heart when the two are a pair of warriors, side-by-side. Arden captures the older-brother-younger-sister relationship to perfection.
Even though this book had a slow start, I enjoyed it as a whole and am absolutely excited to read The Girl in the Tower. Vasilia’s resilience and wildness creates a compelling character, and I am eager to see what adventures she has yet ahead of her.