The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. ★★1/2
Trigger warning – rape
The Bear and the Nightingale is one of those books that everyone seems to love… except me.
Vasya’s grandmother was a wild woman with strange powers, and Vasya has inherited some of her ability. She can see and speak to the spirits of the hearth and home, even as the rest of the village begins to turn against the old ways at the urging of a new priest. But a battle is coming as an ancient force within the woods awakens… and Vasya may be all that stands between her village and destruction.
One of my biggest problems with The Bear and the Nightingale is how little happens relative to page length. Do you see my synopsis above? I usually try to avoid spoilers, but with this book I literally couldn’t give a plot synopsis without delving into the second half of the book. Because practically nothing plot significant happens in the first half! Seriously, this book opens with Vasya’s mother being pregnant.
I honestly don’t know what the point of most of this was. The “main” plot didn’t seem to get any attention at all until the last third, maybe even the last fourth. What was the rest of the book supposed to be doing? Why did we spend so much time on Vasya’s brother who becomes a monk when he disappears halfway through the story? The back blurb mentions the necklace, and I’ll admit that it was said to be important. But what did this necklace actually do? Why was it relevant? Honestly, that’s a question that can describe so much of this book.
My other problem with the book was the character of Anna and her treatment – there’s some spoilers for this topic. Vasya’s mother dies in childbirth, and her father Pytor decides to remarry to provide a mother figure for her. The Prince sees this as an oppurtunity to rid himself of his daughter Anna, a sixteen year old girl who sees all the same spirits Vasya does and is considered mad for it. Anna thinks the spirits are demons, and she wants nothing more than to go to a convent and escape the fear that rules her life. Instead she is married off to a much older man (Pytor) without her consent. Anna doesn’t consent to anything that happens to her, including the consummation of the marriage. That’s described through Pytor’s POV, and he mentions that he finds her silent tears off putting. What really gets me is how there’s absolutely no narrative recognition of this as rape. Marital rape exists! But this is never once discussed. My best guess is that Anna’s character was an attempt to look at the psychology of how someone becomes an “evil stepmother,” maybe through the cycle of abuse. But the result is a female character who’s victimized and coded as mentally ill who is (SPOILER) unceremoniously killed off at the end of the book (END SPOILER). None of this sits right with me.
The last issue I have with The Bear and the Nightingale is that it feels like Vasya was sidelined during the climax of the story. I won’t go any more into that for sake of spoilers.
Probably the best thing about The Bear and the Nightingale is how well Arden communicates her setting of historical Russia. A chill practically seeps off of the pages.
I’ve heard that there’s plans for sequels, and maybe some of my frustrations with this book will be dealt with there. However, I am not planning on reading the sequels to find out.
I received a free copy of The Bear and the Nightingale from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.