The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Published in January 2017 by Del Rey.

Links: Goodreads. Amazon.

Source: publisher via NetGalley. Thank you Del Rey for providing me with an e-copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

Genre: historical fantasy.

My rating:

‘Frost-demons have no interest in mortal girls wed to mortal men. In the stories, they only come for the wild maiden.’

In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, an elderly servant tells stories of sorcery, folklore and the Winter King to the children of the family, tales of old magic frowned upon by the church.

But for the young, wild Vasya these are far more than just stories. She alone can see the house spirits that guard her home and sense the growing forces of dark magic in the woods…

It’s been three weeks since my last post and I kind of wanted to do the whole Adele routine by giving you all sorts of reasons for my absence, but I’ll do that in the February recap post. Today, I just want to talk to you about The Bear and the Nightingale.

The Bear and the Nightingale is Arden’s debut and it’s a rich, powerful story. It’s heavily based on Russian folklore and I liked it a lot. To be honest, the only two things that bothered me were the relatively slow beginning (it takes the story a while to get going, but once it does, it really pulls you in) and the fact that it is not a standalone, which is what I thought it was when I started reading it.

Now, I’ve been known to start series left and right and I have about 40 going right at this moment (it’s a problem, I’m working on it), but Goodreads didn’t list it as a series when I started it and it wasn’t until after I’d finished it and was completely satisfied with the ending that I learned Arden was writing books 2 and 3. And while I loved the setting and would love to read more stories in that same world, I’m not sure how Vasya’s story will continue. Anyway, I’ll let the author surprise me.

But let’s talk about the good stuff instead. As I said, the worldbuilding was great. I’m always up for a fantasy story with a non-Western setting and Russian folklore is somewhat familiar to me (not in the sense that Slovenian folklore is similar but I’ve read a lot of Russian folk and fairy tales and I loved them), so I had a fun time recognizing the creatures and features of the world.

Arden’s writing is also rich and powerful, she paints the scenery with great attention to detail but I didn’t feel it bogged down the narrative, which was great. She’s a master at writing atmosphere, I think The Bear and the Nightingale should really be read in wintertime. It’s the perfect book for when it’s cold outside and you’re somewhere warm.

I liked Vasya, the girl protagonist, a lot. She’s a wild child with one foot firmly in the fairy world, misunderstood by her relatives and restricted by tradition. While she’s a young child, this wild streak is tolerable, but as she becomes a young woman, the society starts boxing her in. Her character development was great and it’s one of the reasons I’ll be continuing with the series – I’m curious to know more about the adult Vasya. I’m hoping she’ll be more proactive about her fate – it was hard for her to do anything drastic while she was a very young child but I sometimes felt she was a pawn on the chessboard of other, bigger forces, pushed around as they saw fit.

But Arden really writes great villains. Her antagonists (and yes, there’s more than one) are well-rounded personalities with motives that are never purely black, so it’s hard to hate them, even when they are absolutely loathsome. I’m not going to go into details and names here because it’s sort of spoilery, but let’s say I enjoyed them very much.

All in all, The Bear and the Nightingale was a very good historical fantasy, so if that’s your cup of tea, go for it. I’m hoping the sequel(s) will do it justice and I’m looking forward to exploring the world some more.

Have you read The Bear and the Nightingale? What did you think?

What’s your favourite historical fantasy?

I’d love to hear from you! :)

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  • I admit this may be a series but it sure didn’t feel like the start of one. I will continue the series because I loved this book, but if I never do I won’t feel I missed anything.

    • Yep, that’s my view of this book, too. I really liked the fluid ending, it was satisfying. I’ll probably read the sequel because I want more of Arden’s writing!

  • Yay, you’re back! 🎉

    I’ve seen a few people mention the slow beginning, but to be honest a slow moving plot doesn’t always bother me so we’ll see what I think of it. I’m reading it this month, hopefully…which is apparently good timing as it’ll still be winter when I read it! Well written protagonists AND antagonists just seals the deal for me.

    • YES. I’m back. We’ll see if life gets crazy again but so far, I’m feeling good about blogging again.

      Read it while it’s still cold, trust me. It was really great watching the snow fall outside while I was reading it. I hope you’ll like it! :)

  • This sounds really interesting. I love the title. It really does have that fairytale feel. I wish there were more standalones too. Series can were a person out.

    • Well this one can certainly be read as a standalone, I think. Nothing wrong with that. And yep, it has that old fairytale feeling, the cover is gorgeous, too (though the US cover is very different).

  • I love the sound of this and will definitely look out for it next time I
    go book-shopping! I can’t get enough of books inspired by folklore and
    fairy tales, but I especially like them when the antagonists are
    fully-formed characters with interesting motives, as it sounds like they
    are in this book. :)

    • Yay, I’m glad you’re going to give this one a try. I think it’s well worth a read. The antagonists make or break a story, if you ask me (unless it’s like a contemporary romance, where no antagonists are usually necessary).

  • Kaja! I’ve missed you. I hope you and the family are well.

    I’m so glad you loved this book, too. It reminded me a lot of Juliet Marillier, which is obviously a plus in my book. I was actually a bit disappointed when I found out that the author has sequels planned, as it’s so rare to find a standalone fantasy, and I’m happy with how it ended. However, I’m definitely planning to read on!

    As much as I love this cover, I have to say that the U.S. cover fits the story a LOT better. :P

    • Hey! :) Yeah, we’re okay now. It’s almost spring! I saw snowdrops today. That means it’s spring, right? (I can’t wait to shed all the winter clothing. And to be able to go outside without worrying the baby will get an ear infection ffs.)

      This is definitely one of those books that have that old fairytale feeling, I agree. And I’ll be reading on as well, the writing was good!

      And I agree. The US cover fits better, it’s actually really interesting to see two covers SO different.

      We should catch up via email! What have you been up to? How’s the move coming along?

      • I don’t know, it’s been spring here for weeks, and it’s scary. But I suppose it’s almost time for REAL spring! Has the baby been getting lots of infections?

        I wonder what inspired the U.K. cover. I don’t think the artist knew what the book was about. xD

        That would be good! I can’t promise I’ll have time before I move, though. I leave in 8 days. AAAAAAHHH. I’ve mostly been up to freaking out about that and staring at my various lists of things to do, without feeling as if I’m making much progress. (I’m probably being too critical of myself.) I’m ready for the anticipation to be over. Change is hard!

  • I liked this one a lot. Yes, it had its slow parts (and also some weird meandering with the side plots involving a few of her family members) but on the whole I really enjoyed the story for its beautiful atmosphere.

    • Yep, I hope those side plots won’t swell and take over the story now that it’s a freaking trilogy. I’ll read the sequel but I really hope she’ll be able to avoid second book syndrome!

  • Lisa (@TenaciousReader)

    I was impressed with Arden’s prose, but have to admit, I had some issues with this one. It was slow and I actually felt like it got slower as it went, or maybe that was my interest waning.

    • The story has its ups and downs, I agree. Some parts were slower for me, too, but the beginning was especially hard to get into. I was interested enough to keep reading, though, and I’m so glad I did. I’m sorry you didn’t like it more!

  • I agree about the slow start, and I also thought this was a standalone. It works well as such, but I’ll probably try the next book. The characters were definitely the strong point, but I liked the writing overall, too. Great review, Kaja! :)

    • Thanks, Kel! :)

      Yeah, the writing was great, and one of the reasons I’ll be picking up the sequel. Looks like I wasn’t the only one who thought this worked as a standalone!

  • I’ve been meaning to pick this one up, and it sounds like it is worth it! But hm, I’d thought it was a standalone too.

    • I think it can be read as a standalone, though. Most people reading it thought it worked just fine on its own.

  • Sara Letourneau

    I just finished this book the other day and absolutely adored it. So it’s nice to see that it’s getting more love, because it really deserves it. :)

  • I definitely wish this was only a standalone, and, like you, I went into it thinking it was. I love the world, but I feel like Vasya got the perfect closure – I honestly couldn’t have imagined a better one for her adventurous spirit. I do agree that it’ll be great to see the independent Vasya, as she definitely was controlled by various people, always kept in the dark…
    Great review!

    Veronika @ The Regal Critiques

  • Yay, glad you liked it. I completely get hating the slow beginning, it felt unnecessary to follow all these other characters when Vasya was really the main character. I get the world building and story was developed that way but I think I would have loved it more if I hadn’t have been taken all over the place. Also, I didn’t know it was part of a series until well after finishing and that annoyed me. On the one hand, I’m happy because I am all up for a visit to this world again with the folklore that was totally unfamiliar to me and seeing Vasya be far stronger a personality as she is older and able to make her own choices more. On the other hand, it ended well. It was a good book that wrapped things up I’m not sure where another book can go with the story. I’ll remain optimistic and see where it goes.

    Also forgot to say welcome back! Yay for the ability to edit a comment. But welcome back!

  • I liked this one overall, but certainly struggled a bit with the slow beginning. I’m not a particularly patient reader, so the book dragged for me. But oh my gosh, I loved the rich folklore and the beautiful writing. Arden definitely knows how to hook a reader into her books. I’m not sure if I’ll continue with the series right away, but definitely after book 3 is out. I’m glad you enjoyed this, Kaja!

  • I LOVE well written villains so much. I was already on board for reading this one but that point just gave me some more incentive.

    I love series but I like to know something is going to be a series when I go into it, dang it. I guess I can now though I am sorry you were taken by surprise.

  • The mention of Russian folklore intrigues me. And you got me curious about the villains! I like a book with great villains. :) Does Vasya grow in age slowly through the book, or is there a sudden jumping point to when she’s an adult?