The Bear and the Nightingale

Katherine Arden

Premise: In the cold and bitter wilderness of northern Russia, the inhabitants still cling to stories about sorcery and old magic, folklore and the Winter King. When a new priest arrives and slowly converts his flock to the ways of the church, the old spirits are forgotten about and Vasya, the young, wild daughter of Pyotr Vladimirovich, is the only one who can see that they are dying. They are wardens against the evils that lurk in the dark and with their weakening strength, a series of disasters befall the village. Vasya is the only one who can save them from their doom.

As a genre, fantasy is a pretty broad church. It ranges in scope from fictional worlds infested by elves and goblins fighting out heroic battles to alternate histories where covens of witches cast complex hexes and sinister spells. It encompasses a child wizard with a lightning bolt scar, a seven-book biblical allegory whose god is a talking lion and an epic saga where the protagonists squabble over the control of an iron throne. And so, when someone says that they are a fan of fantasy literature, normally it means that they have a specific pigeon-holed appreciation rather than a voracious appetite for the whole lot. As far as I’m concerned, I enjoy fantastical stories where there is some grounding in reality and where the majority of characters don’t have pointy ears or insatiable bloodlust or names that are unfathomable as to how they are pronounced.

For “The Bear and the Nightingale”, the Washington Post’s review claims that “Arden explores what happens when fear and ignorance whip people into a furore, and how society can be persuaded to act against its own interests so easily” and that “It’s a rather apt tale for our times.” This quote pretty much encapsulates the book’s groundings in modern, relatable themes even though its setting and premise are more historical/fantastical in their essence. Whilst there are other-worldly creatures (the Domovoi, a household-spirit; the Rusalka, a water nymph etc.), they are based on real life Russian folklore. Whilst there is an epic battle in the story’s conclusion, the description of it is not filled with the pages of military minutiae that you might find elsewhere. And whilst there are a few difficult-to-pronounce names to get your head around, this is due to the Russian setting rather than their originating from a made-up tongue. All in all, then, there is nothing that goes against my sensibilities as a reader and I suspect that this would be the case for the majority of readers who just dip the occasional toe in the murky waters of fantasy fiction.

The setting is wonderfully portrayed. The descriptions of the landscape and traditions of the era are evocative and enchanting. We are introduced to folklore creatures through a servant’s late night fairy tale recounted by the fire and in the early parts of the book, the existence of magic is something that is only hinted at. It is in the background and as such is allowed to organically grow out from its subtle roots rather than hitting the reader across the face like a sledgehammer. The collection of characters is engaging and adds to the sense of time and place. There are heroes and villains but there is a lot of ordinary, relatable humanity woven in as well. In Vasya, we are given a modern, empowered female protagonist who rails against the expectations of the patriarchal society in which she lives. In Pyotr, we are given a single father who isn’t quite sure what is best for his children. And in Konstantin, the priest who tries to convert his congregation away from the idolatry of the past, we are given a conflicted personality who whilst trying to do good is blind to the harm he has caused.

This first instalment of the “Winternight Trilogy” is a lyrical fairy tale which provides surprises and delight. And I am very much looking forward to reading the next instalment curled up on the sofa on a frosty night.

Who might enjoy this book: Fans of Erin Morgenstern’s “The Night Circus” or anyone who has read and enjoyed Hope Mirrlees’ “Lud-in-the-Mist”. The ‘guardian spirits’ are reminiscent of the ‘daemons’ in Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy

The next book in the series: “The Girl in the Tower”

All writing and illustrations used on this website have been lovingly crafted by the author. If you would like to use them elsewhere, please contact Matt for permission to do so.