Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

From the publisher: 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. After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, she 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. As danger circles nearer, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

The Bear and the Nightingale is a lovely and lyrical telling or retelling of a fairy tale. (If this is based on a real fairy tale, I am not familiar with it.) The language is beautiful, although a knowledge of Russian might come in handy as I had some trouble keeping the characters and their many nicknames straight. There is a glossary of Russian words at the back. The book has a gorgeous cover.

This is a very slow moving story; readers looking for lots of action will not find it here.  This is not a book that gallops along. It is a quiet, intriguing tale. I will admit, although I enjoyed The Bear and the Nightingale, I really wanted to love it. I don’t need a lot of action, but I would have liked more character development. The characters did not move beyond being one dimensional fairy tale characters, even though the story is 300 pages long. I did enjoy the descriptions and the variety of the many household spirits Vasilisa sees and honors.

The story does not reflect well on the church and organized religion, but it does have a definite and obvious feminist point to make:
All my life,” [Vasilisa] said, “I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. (p. 279)
Some readers may rejoice at this firm and clearly expressed message; I would have preferred something a little more subtle.

If you enjoy novels based on fairy tales and full of beautiful language and imagery, especially those with a strong and spunky female main character, I recommend The Bear and the Nightingale.

I read an advance reader copy of The Bear and the Nightingale. It will be published in January 2017, and the Galesburg Public Library will have the book in print and electronic format.

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