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  • Writer's pictureEmily McTavish

Winter Read: The Bear and the Nightingale

Updated: Dec 10, 2018

I just finished The Bear and The Nightingale, the debut novel from Katherine Arden, and I am so glad I read it. It fits the changing winter mood here in Chicago, and it also made me think my windy city isn’t nearly so bad as medieval Russia. That said, I highly recommend this book for a winter reading. I was definitely in the mood for fantasy and escapism and Arden helped scratch my itch for this particular reading craving.

The book opens with the telling of a fairytale by the giant oven where the entire family of Vasya, the heroine, gathers. This is before Vasya is born though, but the fairytale told by the nurse, Dunya, really sets up the plot. The novel is not a simple retelling of folklore though, although there is a wicked stepmother and magical creatures.

I thoroughly enjoyed the play between the church and the ancient relationships with the spirits and guardians of the old religions. I have no prior knowledge of any Russian fairytales or folklore so the descriptions of the house guardian or the river sprite I found to be really fascinating. I liked how the old and new were pitted against each other in the village and how some characters were wary of change in the church but others accepted it. This is not a new story. In America, you could relate this story to the Salem witch hunts, and in this novel, Vasya is constantly being called a witch for staying faithful to the natural order.

I’m also grateful Arden included a glossary for the Russian words, and the glossary also shows her attention to detail and research done for the book. I read this book at a decent clip, so when the plot was really thickening, I would see I word from earlier but still have to flip back to the glossary just to make sure I comprehended the meaning.

I look forward to the next installment since this had a satisfying ending. It was not a cliffhanger but I’m still curious to see what adventure Vasya is thrown into and where she goes. Also, reading Arden’s mini bio on her website is definitely worth it. She is very transparent about where she has been and how long it took her to complete her book.

For those who enjoyed The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern or The Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh, you will enjoy The Bear and The Nightingale.

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