THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE by Katherine Arden – double review!

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.


Title : The Bear and the Nightingale
Author : Katherine Arden
Series : Winternight #1
Format : Ebook / physical hardback
Page Count : 328
Genre : Fantasy
Publisher : Del Rey Books
Release Date : January 12, 2017

Reviewer : Micky / Hollis
Rating  : ★ ★ ★ ★ / ★ ★ ★ ★


Micky’s 3.5 -4 star review

This read has been a journey, from starting the wrong book in the series first – I started Girl in the Tower, I don’t know how to explain my idiocy. Then I got back on track with the right book and found a slow build of the world and story. By mid-way I didn’t know if I was going to move from my middling feeling but the second half completely won me over.

This was a historical story of a Russian family, reasonably well off, living in a forest community with harsh conditions. But really this was a story of folklore, a reimagining of Russian tales and assembled around the character of Vasilisa (Vasya). Vasya was a daughter, a sibling but more than anything, she was wild, free and spirited. Added to that spirit, she saw the forest and house spirits and made friendships with them.

Some of Vasya’s family were great and some were not. I enjoyed reading about the family dynamics, her father, her brothers and her step mother. For a while though, it seemed slow and Vasya was young for a long time. In retrospect, I see how this built to a story of detail and depth and it made the foundation for the second half rich.

I loved when we finally got to Morozko, I felt like the whole story had been sewing seeds to get to this point. The cresendo of the story was creepy to me but I got through those aspects and loved where the story ended up. So here I am, converted unexpectedly. I feel like this is one of the cleverest tales I’ve read and I’m really looking forward to starting The Girl in the Tower again.

Thank you to the posse who have been book-pushing this one for a few years but mostly to its first champion, Hollis the bear-pusher.


Hollis’ 4 star review

This was a reread for me, my third in fact (!), and for some reason I thought my last visit had been more recent, that I had read this last year. Nope, it was 2018. I cannot believe how long it’s been, considering how much I love this world, but also I was definitely due to revisit. I needed this. And I had some rereading buddies along for the ride this time which as a lot of fun.

I think you should be careful, [..], that God does not speak in the voice of your own wishing.

That said, I’m going to cheat and just copy in parts of my original review from GR here to the blog. Mostly because I’m lazy but also because none of my opinions have changed.

It’s time to put aside dreaming. Fairy tales are sweet on winter nights, nothing more.

For fans of UPROOTED who have still not read this book, I have one caution for you : I did feel the beginning of this book to be a little slow. But that’s likely because most readers come into this expecting a breakneck fantasy instead of a fairytale. Additionally, Arden takes the time to set up her story, layer it, with different perspectives from different characters prior to the birth of our heroine. And those multi-perspectives continue even as Vasya does become our main gateway into this story.

So you mean to go to the woods and die? A noble sacrifice? How will that help anyone?
I have helped all I can, and earned the people’s hatred. If this is the last decision I can ever make, at least it is my decision. [..] I am not afraid.

However, that slowness doesn’t mean it’s boring. Unlike the aforementioned novel this book is compared to, THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE is one in a series, not a standalone, so we can afford this gradual unfurling of setting, people, and atmosphere. And they are all excellent.

Magic is forgetting that something ever was other than you willed it.

The first in the Winternight Trilogy blends legend with religion, myth with reality, and the upcoming battle to be waged between two forces, all set in the northern region of Rus. Vasya’s character was so charming and she’s also such a perfect role model for any YAers reading this book; strong, not traditionally pretty, adventurous, kind, wanting more for herself than is expected of her sex. Really, she’s a role model for us all. 

All my life, I have been told to ‘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 to me.

Wild and fey, she roams the woods, seeing things others don’t, and eventually it’s she who sees the damage being done by the newly arrived priest who urges the townsfolk to let go of the old ways and embrace God. The use of fear as a tool is what lets in the very real, very evil, darkness, what puts Vasya and her family at risk, and while there is loss and tragedy that befall those she loves, there is still such hope and lightness in the story. 

You should not have left your hearth.
I had to. They were going to send me to a convent. I decided I would rather freeze in a snowbank. Well, that was before I began to freeze in a snowbank. It hurts.

The last time I had read this book I was preparing for book three. Now, knowing everything that is to come, and how it all ends, gave me such a new perspective, let me pick up on a few things I might’ve missed. And yet it didn’t take away any of the joy, the heartbreak, or the wonder. This story is so magical, Arden’s writing so bewitching and clever, and even in the telling it really feels like curling up with an old favourite, a familiar tale you’d grown up with but forgotten over the years. It’s nostalgic and comforting and yet I am so excited to read on and get to THE GIRL IN THE TOWER. Where it’s everything I mentioned above but so so much more, too.

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