Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
I’m finally here to review my final read of 2021. Yes, we’re into the 4th month of 2022 and I’m just now getting to this. Forgive me, my posting schedule adjusting and I have a big backlog of reviews in general.
That being said. You guys, this is getting ridiculous. Not only do I not have review notes for this book, I didn’t even set up the template for it. Honestly, I don’t remember what it was in December that basically led me to give up on all things organizational, but I guess I have to live with that now.
I heard about The Bear and The Nightingale years ago on Regan’s channel. Back then, only the first book had come out, but she raved about it so much that I knew I needed to try it. As far as fantasy recommendations go, I trust her more than anyone else. Her experience with the genre and the fact that she’s the reason I picked up Vicious is all I need to be convinced that I’d love anything she recommends.
When I saw a copy on sale at Barnes & Noble about three or four years ago, I immediately picked it up. Then proceeded to hoard The Bear and The Nightingale until last December, when Fiction Bath Co chose it as their monthly readalong.
Title: The Bear and The Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Book 29 of 2021
Reading Time: 4hrs 43mins
Date Finished: December 31, 2021
Content Warnings: Death of a parent, mental illness, deep religious tones, sexism, death of paternal figure, abuse from parental figure
What Worked For Me: World-building, Russian folklore, strong female characters, depictions of sibling relationships
What Didn’t Work For Me: Negative religious tones, evil stepmother/step-sister trope, the number of names each character has
All I knew going into this was that the MC can see spirits and her stepmother thinks she’s possessed by a demon or something. It got kind of confusing for me when it took several chapters to get to her stepmother’s madness. After realizing that this was more of a slow-burn story, I eased into the story more.
There’s not much that I know about Russian history or folklore, so I spent most of the book getting used to how different it is. I can’t really speak to how good the research is, but I know the author’s note said that she spent a lot of time trying to make things accurate and tell a story that works with Russian culture. Personally, it was fun to read and learn about a culture I know little about.
The world-building reminded me of why I love fantasy books so much. Though I love fantasy, I don’t always pick up ones where the world is just as much a character in the story. Arden does a great job of making the setting come alive. Despite Singapore’s heat, I felt the Russian winters as I read this in bed (the AC may have helped).
Reading The Bear and the Nightingale was one of those experiences where I had to consciously commit to paying attention to the story. It’s easy to get lost in how much happens. The slow pacing is highly deceptive and I didn’t realize how much there was to keep track of until I started getting confused as things came together. Then I made sure not to read when I was super tired and falling asleep.
As far as the story goes, I found myself enjoying it more once I got into the rhythm of what was going on. The slow burn appealed to be once I became more familiar with the story. It was actually nice to get to see things unfold across a period of several years. Vasya was a great character to follow and I enjoyed seeing how she escaped into the woods to avoid her stepmother’s abuse.
As a main character, I really enjoyed spending time with Vasya. I liked how independent she was and how much she wanted her own life. How she was willing to bear the punishments she got if it meant that she didn’t have to be married off. Her not wanting romance also meant I had one less thing to keep track of with the book and all the characters that popped up.
If you know me, you know that I tend to prefer my books with less romance. Especially when the main plot is already heavy with things, I think romance tends to cloud the story. The lack of it in this book really allowed the plot of seeing spirits take center stage. It also allowed us to see more of Vasya’s relationships with each of her family members.
Seeing how religion played into the story was fascinating as well. I think this is set about 200-300 years ago, back when it was believed that all mental illness was related to demonic possession. The way the Catholic priest dealt with this was expected, but it did occasionally feel like the story was over-emphasizing that the church was only harmful.
As much as I did have a great time with this book, there were also things that I struggled with.
For one, there are so many versions of one person’s name that it was hard for me to keep track of them throughout the book. In some cases, two people had similar nicknames or the exact same nickname, but were vastly different people. Those were difficult to sort through in my head and I’m still not sure that I fully know who is who.
There was one instance where a random Catholic priest that was mentioned a few times had the same name as one of Vasya’s brothers, who was also a Catholic priest. It was confusing because I didn’t really know who they were talking about. At least, that’s how I remember it. My lack of review notes isn’t helping this example, but I think you get what I mean.
It was frustrating to read about how much abuse Vasya’s stepmother got away with though. Literally no one ever stopped her, which made no sense. I thought at least one person might stand up more, but it almost never happened. Watching the verbal and physical abuse happen was painful and made me want to smack the stepmother myself.
Granted, family dynamics were very different back then, but I thought that Vasya’s father would intervene more because he loved her so much. Yet, he allowed his new wife to treat his daughter so terribly and remained quiet. It bothered me quite a bit.
I mentioned the religious thing a bit earlier. It was kind of annoying that the Catholic priest was a terrible person and the church only did bad things. Yes, the church was historically awful to people with mental illnesses and can still be awful now, but the fact that the religious figures were all bad except for Vasya’s brother was frustrating.
Plus, the main priest that we read about got creepier and worse with each passing chapter. From making the people love him so much that they basically worship him instead to demanding that he get paints so he can spend his days holed up inside instead of serving his parish. He was terrible at his job and the way he spoke about everyone made it clear that he was only in it for the admiration.
The two people I wanted to punch most were Vasya’s stepmother and the priest. I don’t remember either of their names, clearly, but I wanted so badly to just hit them over the head and hope that common sense would come to them. I mean, the priest did treat the stepmother badly, but it only made him more frustrating.
All those things aside, I’m interested enough to get the sequels and read them. I wish I’d read The Bear and the Nightingale earlier so I could have gotten on the hype train and bought the Fairyloot exclusive editions that came out last year. The covers are gorgeous and I might try to see if someone is reselling them online.
I own the two perfumes Fiction Bath Co made for Vasya and Morozko, the Russian god in the story, and they’re both amazing. I’m actually wearing the Morozko scent as I write this blog post. If you like bookish-themed perfumes and beauty products, I’d highly recommend checking out this store. They’re such great people and I’ve loved everything I’ve gotten from them.