Thursday, January 26, 2017

ARC REVIEW: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale
by Katherine Arden
Published January 10 2017
Random House
Historical Fantasy
An ARC of this eBook was provided courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

4/5 stars
PG-13 for mention of sexual content. No explicit scenes
Recommended for those who like retellings, especially if you're tired of seeing the same old ones. Also for those who like stories thick with history, mythology, and a strong heroine.

"A magical debut novel for readers of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and Neil Gaiman’s myth-rich fantasies, The Bear and the Nightingale spins an irresistible spell as it announces the arrival of a singular talent with a gorgeous voice. 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." -Barnes & Noble

The Review
I love the feel of this book. Not only is it beautifully told, but the distinct clash within between folklore and tradition & religion and modernism is a timeless and intriguing struggle I love to explore. This specifically is one of the more fascinating depictions of a very controversial time, between tradition and unforgiving religion. It's of the same stock as Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, but with it's heavy focus on folklore/tradition in the wake of the Roman Catholic church, The Bear and the Nightingale is almost more realistic. It's more believable, perhaps, with the fading away of ancient gods and spirits, like the domovoi house spirit, as people's interest and offerings wane.

This not-quite-fantasy is something I classify as 'historical fantasy', which is less fantasy than legend. Wildwood Dancing and The Bear and the Nightingale are so far the only books I've read in this niche and they are also two of the greatest books I've read that use magic in a real world, historical context, in such a way that it feels true, like folklore brought to life, but are at the same time quality historical fiction.

This story also looks at both sides of that struggle and I really enjoyed that Arden didn't stoop to a base push of a specific agenda, which is something I seem to encounter a lot with these kinds of books. While it obviously favors one side of the struggle, Arden handles it all very well within the story. Her human antagonists -like her heroes and heroines- are written with interesting depth and believable development, earning in turn my sympathy and revulsion. Father Knostantine both intrigued and disgusted me; one moment, he's genuinely concerned for people and the next he's a total creeper. He waffles back and forth between sympathetic and unlikable. Which was fantastic! He reminded me a lot of Joanne Harris' Father Reynaud in Chocolat, but he has -in my opinion- a much better and more satisfying ending.

But it's not just the antagonists who are great characters. Vasya, our heroine, is a little fireball with a golden heart and brazen confidence; Morozko is so cool and I love him even though I know I shouldn't trust him; Vasya's family, too, is full of fantastic characters and they are all well-developed and lovable, even with so many of them in the lineup. Another reason I applaud this great story.

I don't know enough about Russian folklore to know how accurate it's portrayal is, but it feels accurate, alive, and genuine, and that's what's really important. But what I love most about The Bear and the Nightingale is that it IS a fairy tale. Even based on an ancient story, I wouldn't classify this as a retelling or a 'revamping' or something old with a new twist. This is straight up a living, breathing, brand new fairy tale and it is delicious. And, oh, did I savor it. I lived and breathed this book.

Most of all, I loved the finale. It was so fitting and so beautiful.

I admit, some of the subplot endings felt frustratingly ambiguous. I still have so many questions and all I want is to know what happens next! I hope Arden plans, if not a direct sequel, than a companion novel of some kind. Honestly, I'd be surprised if she didn't, simply with the way the story is written. Several characters are introduced in the beginning who, for reasons, disappear from the tale. This did disappoint me, because the most prominent of these characters -our heroine's brother Sasha- was right off the bat a favorite for me. I love how he develops while he's in the tale, and I liked and believed the reasons he didn't remain, but I almost wanted to follow him, instead of the staying where we were. I hope he gets his own novel. I would read that in a heartbeat.

The one thing I didn't like was how many names, proper names, nicknames, and pet names these characters all have. Most characters have three different names by which they are interchangeably referred to and most of them don't share enough commonality to easily group together. This might be historically accurate but it was super confusing.

This is a gorgeous, original, and breathtaking novel and a fantastic debut for Katherine Arden. I'm definitely watching for more books from this author in the future.

Reading Journal Sidebar
As you might now, I'm keeping a Reading Journal this year and absolutely loving it. (Thanks to the The Bear and the Nightingale has made me want to read Russian folklore and fairy tales; also to re-read a book called Troll Fell that I vaguely remember reading as a teenager. It featured a domovoi and is probably the only thing I've read close to Russian folklore.
notes written while reading, this is probably the quickest review I've ever written.) One of the features of this journal are little book trees, detailing what certain books prompted you to read other books.

Have you read anything you could classify as
'historical fantasy'?
I'd love to check them out!

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