The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden (The Winternight Trilogy #1) /★★★★★
Summary: Vasilisa is a creature of winter and nature. When her father brings home a stepmother who forbids her family from honoring household spirits, and a priest arrives who teaches her happy village to fear, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on gifts she has long concealed to protect her family.
You are. And because you are, you can walk where you will, into peace, oblivion, or pits of fire, but you will always choose.
Genre: Fantasy/Historical fiction
I absolutely loved every second of this book. I was hooked from the very first chapter and immediately sucked in by the atmosphere- frigid, cozy Russian wilderness with an ominous hint of magic. I didn’t read the summary of the book before I decided to pick it up – actually, I don’t know if I’d ever read a summary of it (the summary of this book is rather long, and I tend to skim or skip over reading long summaries), but I knew it had something to do with Russia and winter and history and fantasy, so I figured it was a safe bet. And it was! I went into this book without any of the idea of what the plot was, and it wasn’t until about halfway through that I really got a sense of where it was going, but I loved meandering through the first half. This is slow-moving moving book, but I loved being in the atmosphere of it and slowly coming to understand each character, and realizing how their desires and motivations were going to shape the plot later.
The Bear and the Nightingale is an incredible and seamless mix of fantasy, folklore, and historical fiction. Vasilisa lives in a world where magic and God coexist harmoniously until Father Konstantin, a new priest in the village, begins to breed fear into the people, of God, of condemnation, of Vasilisa herself, in the name of the mission he believes God has given him- to “save” these people. It’s an incredible portrayal of the abuse of Christian power overtaking the “old” world. This book begins with a sense of magical realism that evolves into full-blown fantasy, and I loved how as the fear and terror of God grew stronger, the more we were forced into the world of the mythical, of the spirits and creatures of the forest. It’s a book of extreme fear and love.
This book is rich with magic and atmosphere. Arden writes the wilderness and the seasons beautifully. And this book did get much darker than I expected- which I loved. The Bear and the Nightingale is a book that transported me to a world that I loved being in, and it’s the perfect book to read during winter especially. It brought me right into the mood for chilly nights and warm houses.
Arden writes such fascinating, nuanced characters. We watch Vasilisa grow from a wild child who cannot be contained to a young woman that her world tries to contain. I loved Vasilisa and her unstoppable spirit. The war between what she wanted, and what she should be allowed as a woman, was horribly frustrating yet fantastically done. Her relationship with her family was wonderful and imperfect. I loved her siblings, especially her older brother Alyosha, whose love and protectiveness of her was not the overbearing kind, but showed that he understood who she was and he also understood the kind of world they lived in.
Father Konstantin was particularly fascinating character. He’s devoted to God and the mission he believes he’s been put on, yet blurs the line between the power of God and the power he makes for himself, lording over the people and bringing death and despair to the village. He fluctuates between a fascinated love for Vasilisa and hating her and blaming her for his own transgressions and the town’s misfortune. Konstantin infuriated me and I found him to be such a brilliant character.
I loved Arden’s writing style from the very first page. It’s smooth and atmospheric, and perfectly captures the feeling a frigid snowy winter and hot, sticky summer day. Her portrayal of icy Russia made me feel cold as I was reading. Her descriptions of characters, of setting, of magic and terror she threaded into the atmosphere of this book were incredible. Her writing is beautiful, and I particularly loved how she so flawlessly moves between characters in the third person omniscient point of view, to the point that I hardly realized we’d shifted.
Was I satisfied?
YES. I loved this book, and it was the PERFECT read to transition me into December and wintertime. I will definitely be picking up the second book soon.