The Bear and the Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Trigger Warnings: Heavy religious dialogue.
Read If: You are fascinated by mythology and folklore
Synopsis: Set in medieval Russia, we watch little Vasilisa (Vasya) grow up in a rural village thriving with little spirits and guardians. The people of the village are very loyal to these little creatures and give them offerings daily in exchange for their protection.
However, this all changes when Vasya’s father marries a very devout Catholic woman. She, alongside the village’s new priest, work to dismantle the folklore that has thrived in the village for so long. They work together to bring the fear of God into the community and fight anyone who continues to believe in the folklore.
Meanwhile, Vasya is growing into her own power and discovering that she might be the only one who can fight against the newly established reign of fear.
Overall: 5/5 stars, I loved the characters, the plot, and the writing. It was absolutely enchanting.
Non-Spoiler Review: Vasya and her new step-mother, Anna, are both very young and somewhat close in age. They are very similar in a lot of ways, namely in that they can both see and interact with the spirits of Russian folklore. However, Vasya approaches them with courage and love, while Anna fears them and clings to religion.
Throughout the story, religion becomes a source of safety for those who live with fear. The peoples’ fear itself is almost its own character, as it grows and changes throughout the story, serves as a catalyst for the plot, and informs the relationships characters have with one another.
The weather also plays an interesting role. The cold and frost have a direct relationship with the amount of fear within the community. The more fearful the people are, the more the winter seems to intensify. Arden’s beautifully descriptive writing makes the bitter cold almost palpable.
I also really enjoyed Vasya’s character. In this first installment of the series, she is still just a little girl. While she has a very courageous and bold narrative, she never loses her own sense of childhood. This was so charming to read, especially since most books featuring a child protagonist tend to strip them of their entire childhood innocence as soon as they are faced with conflict.
Vasya’s relationship with her brother, Alyosha, was also incredibly wholesome. They play together, bicker, and argue, but they are incredibly warm and loving. Arden mentions in the back of the physical book that she based this relationship off of her own relationship with her brothers.
The last thing I will mention is the immense amount of dedication and research put into the animals and spirits. They are all adopted from Russian folklore and they all have their own duties and personalities. The amount of investigation and character building that went into these little creatures does not go unnoticed!
Ultimately, I learned so much and fully enjoyed this introduction to Russian folklore!
1. How do you think Anna and Vasya’s similarities make their differences all the more drastic? How do you think this contributed to the plot?
2. In what ways do you think fear contributed to character development throughout the novel? Is there any character or theme that is not impacted by fear?
3. What conflicts brought about by fear are resolved? Which are left untouched?
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