The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Review,  Fantasy,  YA

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden – atmospheric YA fantasy

The Bear and the Nightingale is beautiful, imaginative, and atmospheric historical YA fantasy with amazing world.

The Bear and the Nightingale

The Bear and the Nightingale (The Winternight Trilogy #1) by Katherine Arden

Publication Date : January 1, 2017

Publisher : Random House 

Read Date : September 12, 2023

Genre : Fantasy / YA

Pages : 430

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.


At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind–she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed–this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

Review of The Bear and the Nightingale

The Bear and the Nightingale is captivating and atmospheric YA fantasy that follows Vasilisa Petrovna (Vasya) who grew up in a village near the northern frozen forests of Russia listening to fairytales at the warmth of the oven. She had a special gift of sight and could talk to spirits.

When her father remarries and a priest from the city arrives in the village, people start noticing she has sight, not only does her life change but the villagers suffer like they never had before. And then there is the Frost King who wants to claim Vasilisa. Soon she is put in a position to either lose her freedom or sacrifice herself to save her family and people.

I’m used to reading action-packed and fast-paced fantasy. I love the thrill of adventure and action. So it took me a little longer to get used to The Bear and the Nightingale as this definitely reads like a literary medium-paced fantasy with little action.

Writing is beautiful, imaginative, and fairytale-like, told in the third person narrative. The plot has a dark and cold vibe with heavy themes and layers of misogyny, physical abuse, proselytization, marital rape, forced marriage, sexual assault, and loss and grief.

There are many characters introduced in the first part but Pyotr’s family and the priest play a major role in the story. I can’t possibly describe all the characters but here is how I felt about the Pyotr family in brief –

Pyotr – Vasya’s father. Fair and loved his children. I don’t think he understood Vasya well but we could see he loved her.
Anna – I never liked her! At first, I felt bad for her. She too had a sight but she saw it as madness and never tried to understand Vasya. As the story progressed she was intentionally cruel to Vasya and I hated her for that. For Everything bad she did to her I wished she had moment of guilt and regret but we never get that and it is one small reason I felt let down in the end.

Dunya – Loved this old nursemaid and second mother to all Petrovna children. She was good to all of them till the end.
Irina- Anna’s daughter. She does what her mother says but Anna’s hatred for Vasya never pollutes her heart. She loved Vasya like any young sister and for that I like her.
Olga – Eldest daughter. She is normal obliging daughter who gets married soon so we don’t know much except she cared for Vasya.
Kolya – Eldest Son. He is typical male of the era, proud and headstrong but he too noticed Vasya’s sight and never said anything about it so I liked him for that.

Shasha – Second son. I liked him in the first part. He would have been my favorite secondary character if I got to see him more. But I liked him for loving Vasya and carving his own path in life.
Alyosha – Youngest son. My favorite secondary character. He understood Vasya the most. He could see what Kyril was and Vasya is not made for the cage. He supported and believed her till the end.
Vasya – The youngest daughter.

Vasya is of course my most favorite character. She is free-spirited, courageous, brave, resilient, and curious soul. She was so lively in the forest, among spirits and horses but I hated to see how she became reserved like a caged bird in her own house. She is kind and compassionate even to people who hate her.

I admired her for going through so much in her life- hearing cruel words from villagers, bearing the beating from Anna, and being accused of everything bad happening in the village- and yet she tried to help people and her family who wanted to get rid of her.. She even went to save Anna in the end. There was a moment of doubt but she took in her sight, the magic, and meeting the Winter King pretty well. I like how well she could see right and wrong and yet could preserve her innocence.

I hated Konstantin. It was clear from the beginning there was something wrong with the man. He sure was charming and had a way with people. Sometimes it felt he too had witch power for the way he hypnotized people. I just couldn’t understand how much proof a man needs to see how misguided his belief was and how he fell for deception. I wish Vasya hadn’t saved him. It would have made things better for everyone.

Morozko, the Winter Demon (King)/Death is mysterious. He is cold but never cruel. People feared him but in reality, he imbued respect more than fear. We get to know only a part of him but I’m sure there will be more to him in the next books.

The world is the best part of The Bear and the Nightingale. The setting of fourteenth-century Russia when Ivan I was Prince of Moscow is filled with history, myths, and folklore. While the first part focuses on way of living, customs, and politics, the second part is filled with religion, religious belief, and differences between old and new religion and how the harmony between the two was dealt with fear of God and religious prosecution. The third part is all about magic and fairytales turning into reality for Vasya. This is my most favorite part.

Legend of the Winter King, Dunya’s stories in the beginning, and legend of Morozko and his brother the Bear was interesting. I also enjoyed reading about different house spirits, water spirits, and forest spirits. The description of Morozko’s house was absolutely gorgeous. I enjoyed the tension and thrill of the battle and how it turned against the Bear. There aren’t many twist and turns but I enjoyed the end twist.

The Bear and the Nightingale forms the base of the series. There is lots of build up and we get to know all the characters but the development will be in the next books of the series. There are still many things to know about.

We don’t get any clear idea of how Vasya’s magic works or how her grandmother had the magic and why she came to Moscow in first place or how Morozko knew about Vasya or knew she is the one he needs to defeat the Bear. Is the magic a generational thing and if so why Anna had sight and if it’s not are there other witches out there? I’m sure reading second book pretty soon so that I have all the answers.

Overall, The Bear and the Nightingale is beautiful, imaginative, and atmospheric historical YA fantasy with amazing world.

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Hi, I'm Yesha, an Indian book blogger. Avid and eclectic reader who loves to read with a cup of tea. Not born reader but I don't think I’m going to stop reading books in this life. “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”


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