book review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale was a book that I found hard to put down.  The characters were interesting, the plot was creative, and the writing was a mix of mythology and fantasy.  The book addressed Russian fairy tales, but it in itself was a fairy tale.  The writing style had a slight dream-like quality to it that is somewhat reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s books, and yet it felt unique.  Katherine Arden did a magnificent job of spinning her world.  It was hard to tear myself away from her world.

The basic plot is that the main character, Vasilisa (Vasya), uses her special ability to see spirits to try to save her people.  Vasya’s mother dies giving birth to her and she gets a stepmother (Anna) who, while able to see the spirits, fears them.  The differences in their reactions to the same ability defines their personalities and their lives.  Vasilisa accepts her ability, talks to the spirits and befriends them while Anna shrieks and faints and tries to get rid of the spirits.  There is a bit of a clash between the old world versus the new.  The “new” is represented by Christianity and the “old” is represented by the old spirits.  The book doesn’t say that one is better than the other, but it does say that ignoring one for the sake of the other may have unintended consequences.  This is evident in the priest that comes to live in Vasya’s village and what happens to him towards the end of the book.  Maybe the author is trying to say that the old ways are part of our heritage, part of what makes us and therefore abandoning them is a bad idea?

Even if you don’t get any message from the book, the characters themselves, whether they were main characters or minor characters (other members of Vasya’s family), were interesting and well-developed.  The book itself was a pleasure to read just for the sake of reading.

The only people I would hesitate to recommend this book to would be ultra conservative Christians, just because they may be offended that the book deals with old spirits.  If you don’t mind that and can just appreciate a work of fiction, you should definitely read this book.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary e-copy of this book to preview in exchange for my honest review from NetGalley.  This book will be published January 10, 2017.