Tuesday, 27 December 2016

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Book Review

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

"...foolish girl to believe in fairy tales"

The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden will be published by Ebury Publishing on 12th January, 2017.

The Bear and the Nightingale is perhaps the perfect winter read; freezing forests, folklore, fairy tales and a family dynamic to get into (I didn't intend the alliteration there but it worked quite well!).
Based on Russian folklore, this book is one of the 'grown up fairy tales' which are having a moment, like The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. This might not be everyone's cup of tea, but I enjoy it, if it's done well, and The Bear and the Nightingale is mainly done well, though there are a few pace and plot elements that let it down.

Blurb from NetGalley

A young woman's family is threatened by forces both real and fantastical in this debut novel inspired by Russian fairy tales.
In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, a stranger with piercing blue eyes presents a new father with a gift - a precious jewel on a delicate chain, intended for his young daughter. Uncertain of its meaning the father hides the gift away and his daughter, Vasya, grows up a wild, willful girl, to the chagrin of her family. But when mysterious forces threaten the happiness of their village, Vasya discovers that, armed only with the necklace, she may be the only on who can keep darkness at bay."

The detail and research that has gone into the book is wonderful. I know next to nothing about Russian folklore (though now I want to learn more) but from what I've read Arden is fairly spot on and has obviously researched thoroughly. The detail doesn't drag the book down though, it has an ideal level of historical accuracy, mythology and just plain good story. Arden also really conjures up the feeling of being right in the story, particularly in the description of the cold Russian winters. She also uses unashamedly fairy tale-esque language, with lots of traditional imagery, yet it's made real with her grounding it in the senses.

"The quiet, crystalline words dropped into Vasya's mind and she saw the heavens making wheels of fire, in shapes she did not know, and a snowy plain that kissed a bitter horizon, blue on black."

The Bear and the Nightingale also has several elements in it; historical fiction, horror, magical-realism, it's really a full book.

I did like the characters too, though sometimes I thought they were a little stereotypical; a strong-willed girl with magical gifts, a fervent priest who struggles with his own temptations and an elderly nurse who believes in the old ways and is fiercely protective of her charges. These are all characters that we've seen before, yet the setting and the writing makes them more alive, relatable and real. I particularly felt for Vasya and her struggle with being female and and the limited options she has; it's clearly something Arden feels passionate about and reading about it made me angry and desperate for Vasya to change her fate.

"'I am born for a cage, after all: convent or house, what else is there?'"

There were a few elements within The Bear and the Nightingale that didn't quite work though; the main issue for me being the pacing of the story. The real action and heart of the story only takes place in the last 30% or so of the book. At the beginning there are several chapters devoted to developing characters and there is no mention of bears or nightingales. Some of these characters then disappear and aren't heard from again, so it seems odd that so much time was spent on them. Maybe Arden is planning a sequel where they'll pop up again, but as a stand alone it's frustrating to connect with the characters who then have practically nothing to do with the rest of the book. Yes, it does set up the later story and anchors the reader in the history of the characters and the family, but I felt that a lot of it could have been cut down and streamlined.

If you feel it is a little slow at the beginning then persevere, it does pick up, and The Bear and the Nightingale is really a lovely read and ideal for a cold January evening.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars (rounded up to 4 for Goodreads)

I received an ARC of The Bear and the Nightingale via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks to the author and publisher.

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