Ever since I devoured Catherynne M Valente’s Deathless, I’ve been on the look out for good literary adult fairytale-esque stories steeped with folklore and simmering with magic. I think The Bear and the Nightingale delivers. Set deep in the Russian countryside, we follow Vasilisa (immediately a nod to Russian folklore) from her birth to the
brink of womanhood and her family. Vasya is the epitome of a ‘wild maiden’; loves the outdoors, animals, high spirited, would rather be learning to ride horses than sit still at home and sew… you get the gist. When her beloved father remarries in an attempt to bring a strong motherly influence over his wild daughter, Vasya learns that the friendly house/woodland/water/stable spirits she has always conversed with are considered demons by her new step-mother – the only other person who can see them. Throw in a pious priest who is both beguiled and horrified by Vasya, an unknown creature of dread stirring in the forest, a mysterious, powerful, magical man who promises safety with a talisman, the power of familial love and a whole heap of magical folklore et voila.
Arden’s prose is enchanting, the snowy wintery setting comes alive as you read so it’s almost tangible. You are lifted from your cosy reading spot and transported to medieval Russia, you shiver from the chill, you smell the broth cooked in the giant oven and you can feel magic. The atmosphere is crafted so well that as the novel progresses and we follow Vasya as she grows and people begin to mistrust her wild ways, you as a reader really feel the tension and sense of unease, almost as if you can feel the villagers’ gaze on you. I really enjoyed that aspect of the novel. Everything felt so realistic without being bogged down with description. I also liked the way Arden wrote the scenes where Vasya saw the mythical beings in the presence of other characters. We felt the strangeness of the witnesses’ view and the confusion from Vasya as she attempts to explain. It’s masterfully done. While discussing the prose, I absolutely adored all the names in this novel. I know it would have been difficult to write a novel set in Russia and *not* give the characters Russian names but it was something I kept thinking every time we learned a new name.
One of the main themes of this novel is religion vs mythology (folklore/fairytales/old gods etc..). Arden explores the affect a new zealous priest has on the villagers and Vasya’s family, all of whom have grown up with tales of the uncanny and the magical. For example they would always pay tribute to the woodland spirit (not sure of the terminology here, so sorry if i’m using the wrong words) before a hunt and leave bread and milk out for the hearth spirit so their house would be watched over. These things were all part of their tradition and life went on as well as can be expected. Cue new priest who believes these actions and beliefs to be a great sin and that the only way to gain God’s forgiveness and enter heaven is by ignoring these traditions and fervently praying instead of leaving tribute. Suddenly, not everything is as it seems. Coincidence? You shall see. It was really interesting watching this aspect of the story play out and made me think about what it must have been like, in any country/religion, to have been part of one belief system to then be told to forget that and do something else. I value a book that can make me think as well as be completely lose me in the wonderful world. Saying that, it is not at all preachy and I don’t believe Arden is telling us one way or another what the right course is, it’s just a wonderful exploration.
I also appreciated how well Arden wove lots of different elements of Russian folklore into The Bear and the Nightingale while also creating something completely new. There are plenty of hints and mentions of Russian stories (the firebird, anyone) but she doesn’t elaborate on them, if you’re in the know, you can appreciate the effort. After reading the afore mentioned Deathless, I picked up Penguin Classic’s collection Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov and read many of the stories included, so I enjoyed reading a story that hinted at those. Naturally it is not necessary to have read a lot of folklore to understand or fully appreciate this novel as it is something new and magical in itself, but it certainly adds an extra layer of understanding if you have read some before. But that could be said about a lot of fantasy novels these days.
The characters were all very well developed and went through believable changes as the story progressed. We get a sense of trouble brewing, although we can’t put our finger on why until the last third or so of the novel, and this affects each character differently. The transitions were realistic and explored how family and a sense of belonging can affect the way people develop. It was really great watching these characters grow and see how fear and fatigue can change everything.
However. I cannot write this review without mentioning my one big-ish issue. The pacing. Now I am all for slow, character focussed stories and I understand that it is necessary for us to follow Vasya and her family from a young age and watch her do certain things in order to progress the story but I felt that it could have been shorter. The first half did a great job of fleshing out all the characters, throwing in some interesting events/characters for us to ponder and generally getting us fully immersed in the world. The third quarter however, dragged. It’s difficult for me to write as there is so much I loved about this novel and it is a debut after all, but the writing in that section lacked agency. I felt like we could have met a certain character-that-I-wont-name-for-fear-of-spoilers a bit earlier and begun the lead up to the climax. Or even spent more time with Vasya and that character rather than watching her go about daily life for another year or so. I think if this middle section had been neater, I wouldn’t hesitate to have this as one of my all time favourite novels. As it stands, I feel that would be the point some readers might get a teensy bit bored and maybe pick something else up. And if you are ever thinking that, I would tell you to stick with it. It’s about to get amazing.
The final quarter of the book is brilliant. The paces quickens with the urgency of the situation Vasya has found herself in and I found myself anxiously turning the pages, eager to see how everything comes together. Some debut authors struggle with endings, after all the world-building, character development, atmospheric build-up, the final scenes can be rushed and wrapped up too neatly. This was not the case here. The ending was perfect. Everything made sense, unfolded at a realistic speed and felt in keeping with how the story had been told. I was very pleased with it and I cannot wait to dive straight into the sequel The Girl in the Tower which comes out 25th January 2018.
*Disclaimer: I received an advanced readers copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This in no way affects my review, all opinions expressed here are honest and completely my own.