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Review: The Bear and the Nightingale

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Title:The Bear and the Nightingale

Author:Katherine Arden

Series:Book 1

Rating★ ★ ★ ★ 


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.

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Vasilisa was a really brave character. She fought back against the cage they wanted to put her in, and spoke her mind. She was loyal to those she loved and very kind, but also very impulsive.

Anna was really infuriating at times. She was very judgemental and strict, especially towards Vasilisa. She was also kind of hysterical and overly-emotional.

Konstantin was a man of faith, but he went about it in a way that relied heavily on instilling fear and panic. He also seemed a bit prideful.

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“I go to church, Father,” she replied. “Anna Ivanovna is not my mother, nor is her madness my business. Just as my soul is not yours. And it seems to me we did very well before you came; for if we prayed less, we also wept less.

I first stumbled on this book because of another book blogger. It sparked my interest and I added it to my TBR. It wasn’t until a while later when it was on sale that I actually bought it. And then months later I saw the ARC up on NetGalley and decided there was no better time to start the series. So I finally jumped into it a little while back, and I totally see what people love about this book!

This story is inspired by Russian fairytales, mainly that of Morozko, the Winter King. The main character, Vasilisa, lives in a world that doesn’t really have a place for her. Fierce-spirited, brave, and unwilling to play the role the world expects of her, she becomes the disappointment of the town. However, it is her ability to see into the spirit world that really sets her apart and marks her as “other”.

Trouble arises later in the story when the priest, Father Konstantin, arrives at the village and begins to condemn the old ways of life. He commands respect and blind obedience of the villagers through fear of eternal damnation of their souls. And slowly, Vasya watches her world of spirits and magic begin to fade at a time when an ancient enemy is beginning to awaken.

One of the elements that I enjoyed the most in the story was the fantasy. I liked the friendships that Vasya formed with the different spirits and how she clung to the old stories even when the rest of the world seemed to be moving on. These creatures and spirits were characters in their own right with rules by which to engage them and sometimes even powers that they commanded. But for the most part, they seemed almost human with the way they recognized that their time was past and how they feared the day they would cease to be. They were spirits with their own moods, quirks, and loyalties. Even spirits that could be “bad” or dangerous tended to be humanized by Vasya’s courage and kindness.

The biggest of these characters was definitely Morozko who was a mystery for the most of the book. He was more reserved than the other spirits, more distant. He took a special interest in Vasya and was almost like a protector. They butted heads at time because of their personalities as well. Being immortal, Morozko had a practical and calm approach to things. He lacked deeper emotions and the human experience to really connect to Vasya the way she needed at times.

Marina, thought Pyotor. You left me this mad girl, and I love her well. She is braver and wilder than an of my sons. But what good is that in a woman? I swore I’d keep her safe, but how can I save her from herself? 

Vasya’s connections to her family members also added interesting layers to the story. Her stepmother, Anna, was not exactly a villain, but rather seemed to resent Vasya for embracing the gift of sight that they both shared; to Anna, being able to see these things (demons in her mind) meant that she was flawed somewhere spiritually and that she did not have enough faith. As a result, when Vasya seemed to accept her gift it made Anna see Vasya as evil for not fighting it.

In contrast, Vasya’s other siblings, Alyosha and Irina, were not completely able to understand her but they were more accepting of her. They tended to look out for one another and put love and loyalty above all else.

And while fantasy does play a big part of the plot, some of the biggest enemies that Vasya and her world face are not tangible. They fight against religion, societal progress, nature, self-doubt, and gender roles. I liked this because we can see this power struggle play out between two supernatural beings but when you take a step back there’s so much more to the story.

I think this book is one everyone should definitely consider picking up. It has a lot to offer besides just fantasy. One thing I would say that would’ve made it stronger would be expanding on the fairytales and Russian terminology that appears in the book. Sometimes it took careful reading to really put together what the words meant, or to figure out what the various spirits really did/were. Even so, it didn’t take too much away from the story and I still really enjoyed it. I also liked that we were able to follow the main character from childhood to adolescence and see her personal development. Overall, this is a great read and I would really recommend checking it out ❤





12 thoughts on “Review: The Bear and the Nightingale

    1. Thank you! Yeah, I can agree with that. It did take me a couple of chapters to get into it but once I did I breezed through the rest. Haha, well I think Anna was pretty cruel and petty towards Vasya but I saw it as rooted in fear. She didn’t really start acting that way until she realized Vasya could see the “demons” too. Yes! I got the ARC for it and enjoyed it quite a bit, but I felt like the pacing was slower in the second book.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I can definitely see where you’re coming from. I agree she was a terrible stepmother. She was spiteful and abusive. I just think that compared to the Bear I saw that as the bigger threat to Vasya. But I’m with you, she was terrible :/

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Thanks for the detailed review! I was literally reading another review for this book when I remembered that you’d just finished up your review and came over here to check it out (their’s was a great review, too, but once again didn’t actually talk about the plot of the book 😛 )

    Liked by 1 person

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