The Bear and the Nightingale is Katherine Arden’s debut novel and the first in a planned trilogy. Set in medieval Russia and inspired by traditional folktales, this book has garnered much praise but left me rather cold.
Not that there isn’t much to admire here. The novel begins as a richly atmospheric and captivating tale. Arden skilfully evokes the freezing forests and blazing hearths of her setting. She is also adept at depicting the familial relationships between her characters, particularly those between siblings.
The narrative centres around Vasilisa Petrovna, known as Vasya. Her mother dies in childbirth safe in the knowledge that her daughter will inherit the powers of her mysterious grandmother.
Things started to fall flat for me around 40% into the book when the lack of signposting became apparent. I suddenly realised that I had no idea where the story was heading. Even now, I’m struggling to summarise what it was all about. There seemed to be several conflicts – chief amongst them an antagonism between organised religion and traditional folk beliefs. It isn’t really clear what the central conflict is, however, and the novel feels unfocused and meandering as a result.
I was prevented from giving up on the novel by the emergence of an intriguing theme about half way through – that of unconventional femininity. Arden reflects on the fact that folktales typically punish females who don’t conform to traditional expectations of their gender:
“Frost demons have no interest in mortal girls wed to mortal men. In the stories, the bird-prince and the wicked sorcerer – they only come for the wild maiden.”
Gradually, Vasya comes to realise that the mortal realm holds little for her beyond “walls and cages”.
Arden’s treatment of this theme, coupled with the appealingly spirited Vasya are probably just enough to entice me towards a sequel. But all in all, I was disappointed with The Bear and the Nightingale with its lack of signposting, momentum and focus.