The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden was a beautifully woven, medieval Russian fairy tale full of lush descriptions and dark myths.
I ended up choosing to listen to the audiobook instead of reading it, and I’m so glad I did because the narrator, Kathleen Gati, brought this story to life with her Russian accent. Her authentic accent only emerged when she spoke for the characters, otherwise, her tone was smooth and lovely. But the magic and lilting flow of all those Russian names and words were WONDERFUL and made the fairy tale come alive!
Vasilisa Petrovna is a young girl resisting the traditional female roles of the time and learning and coming to terms with the magic around her all while struggling against a loving father determined to do “what’s best for her” and a stepmother who hates her. Her beloved Dunya looks after her as do her many siblings. There’s also Morozko, the frost king, who takes a special interest …
The descriptions are wonderful, such as the traditional homes with their large ovens and the bearded domovoi who live inside them. I wanted to join Vasilisa in the stables, where she spent so much time learning from horses and the Vasilla who lived there. At times the story is told from other perspectives, such as when we travel with the frost demon and learn his nature … not to mention the unsettling encounters with the one-eyed man who is supposed to be hibernating. The reader also has the perspective of the misguided priest, Konstantin Nikonovich, who comes to the village to push Christianity and is blind to other beliefs despite an encounter with the seductive rusalka. The coldness of northern Russian and harsh winter is almost another character in this cast, a living, breathing thing. The nightingale isn’t introduced until much later in the story, but it was one of my favorite non-human characters.
At times, this story reminded me of Cinderella or other traditional fairy tales, but there was enough originality that I didn’t know what was going to happen next or didn’t care if I did know because it was so richly and pleasantly told. The tale was definitely more fable-like in the beginning and then more horror-filled and serious toward the end.
If you like strong female characters, rich foreign settings and a little romance and magic mixed in, The Bear and the Nightingale is a story you’ll devour. I did.