Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Series: Winternight Trilogy #1
Published by: Ebury Digital
ISBN: 1101885939
ISBN 13: 9781101885932
Published: January 2017
Pages: 336
Format reviewed: eVersion
Site: Author Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Five out of Five
Lists: Favourites and Recommended
Related Reviews: The Girl in the Tower (Winternight Trilogy #2)

This is such a beautiful book, and I feel so damn lucky that I just didn’t get around to reading it when it first came out, as now I immediately have the second book at hand to continue on with.

Vasya is daughter to a fairly wealthy man. Winters are hard, but he is lord of a small area, commanding a few villages/towns and the lands that surround them. He loses his wife in childbirth of Vasya, but has a handful of children already from previous births, so it is they and Dunya, the nurse/kitchen woman, to raise her. That is, until, the king asks he marry another and he takes a God-fearing woman home with him from the courts. She is seemingly insane and harsh, but she gives Vasya’s father another daughter at least.

The novel is told in a time of second sight, where there are beings who must be respected and bestowed of gifts in order to keep the peace, otherwise crops will wither and the cold will take loved ones in the night. They sleep upon ovens that stay lit through the night for warmth, eat of hard black bread and soft cheese, and pray for endurance. Vasya’s step-mother hates the old ways they live to so far from the big city, and with her presence the little creatures that once did the sewing and mending, or tended to the bathhouse, or looked after the horses, feel they are being chased away.

Then a new priest arrives in their home, and the old ways are spurned all the more. Duyva removes the fey stitches from her apron, and soon it is left to Vasya alone to share her crusts and spill her blood in order to keep her family safe. Despite the stepmother’s fearful demands and beatings, Vasya remains wild and at one with the woods and the whispers, and with these connections her gifts grow as much as they can – as they will need to, if her family is to survive the next winter.

The author says in the back of the book that she took certain liberties with some translations. I know little of Russian folklore so for me this worked beautifully – the many names a single person may be referred to as, what they eat and drink and do, their way of life… I love books where they are more or less controlled by their land (such as many Australian books are, by our need for water and the long stretches of desert) and in this is was, of course, the ice and snow and cold.

I loved the countless creatures and how they each hold their own domain, and none are particularly evil or good; they just are. The same of the stepmother and the priest; they are certainly the antagonists but they were truly acting in what they believed was right for their souls and for the souls around them. Just as Vasya’s father, who has to care for so many people under his lordship.

The book is quite short in a way, yet we see Vasya from birth to womanhood and we see such a packed world in such simple scenes. A whole lot of nothing happens for a while and yet it never feels like nothing is happening; it’s just a beautiful collection of words. This is a very enjoyable piece of work.

2 thoughts on “Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

  1. Yes! I recently read this, too, and absolutely loved it! And I also have the second one to go onto immediately… I have heard whisperings of it being even better than the first, so I am intrigued. :3

  2. I thought it was interesting that you appreciated stories that reflect people’s dependency/interactions with the land. Very neat! I fully intend on reading this one, but just haven’t quite bumped it to the top of TBR yet. Great review!

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