ABOUT THE BOOK
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
adult fantasy retelling published by Del Rey on January 10th, 2017
first book in The Bear and the Nightingale trilogy
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. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.
After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother 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.
And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.
As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.
Never have I ever been betrayed this much over a book that I was 100% looking forward to loving, but ended up thinking of as mediocre at best and boring as fuck. I’ve been having a great reading year so the bad books should just not.
The opening of The Bear and the Nightingale is so well done and instantly pulled me into the story but what threw me out of the story is the marital rape that happens over and over before the 20% mark. It definitely turned into a rough read from then on. Sure, barely three paragraphs are dedicated to it and yet they disturbed me a whole lot in that I wasn’t able to let go of it for the rest of the book.
First off, neither the teenage girl (who sees demons everywhere and is considered mad, by the way) nor the 40-something-year-old man has any deciding power to not be married to each other because a prince has put their match forward. Secondly, the girl in subject constantly cries while being raped which goes on for weeks (!) before the husband gets a fucking clue. Disgusting, really and she does get pregnant after all so take that as you will. In one instance, the book even goes as far as to mention how the girl is afraid of a demon sitting in her bedroom, but decidedly more afraid of the husband thinking she wants sex if she wakes him up so she doesn’t move at all.
The normalization of rape with zero discourse on it naturally made me hyper-aware of any further instances regarding sexual abuse and gender roles and unfortunately, I found myself further unimpressed. Sure, the setting of the book is 14th century Russia and I get that the author wanted to be ‘authentic to the times’ and whatnot, but one of the cool things you can do with fiction is that you can alter it in any way you like. Even more so in a fairy tale retelling. We have all these amazingly progressive books coming out this year and then there’s The Bear and the Nightingale being all ‘the work of women was to bear children’ and then going on to prove it. Fucking what?
It doesn’t have to be a world where women are supposed to do as their male counterparts tell them to or that they have to be married as early as 14 or that they might be groped because hey, they’re gonna marry the groper anyway or that their main goal in life is to either be a wife or a nun, but I guess that would have severely crashed with having a special snowflake for a main character who naturally stands for nothing of that. In the line, ‘what you call cages is the lot of women,‘ the women in question is pretty much every woman in the book except Vasya.
‘All my life,’ she 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. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.’ (This coming from someone who spends a majority of the book wandering about the forest, LOL okay).
It also doesn’t have to be a world where a 30-something priest lusts after Vasya: ‘He wanted to seize her, kiss her, hurt her, he did not know what.’ The sexual obsession is gross and not easy to read about especially coming from a man who then turns around and faults her for it. She is fucking 15?! The fact that a priest who is so full of pride, hates anyone who ignores his teachings and craves constant admiration is made out to be an antagonist could have been something great only if pedophiliac tendencies weren’t also thrown into the mix.
Moving on, the author clearly built upon the once upon co-existence of paganism and Christianity in Russia and with there being little to no source material on it, I wasn’t much impressed with how it is executed by pitting the sprites against Christianity. It mostly came across as anti-religion to me; religion is all bad because it makes people be afraid and depressed. Not at all interested in reading about a hypocritical priest adulterating religion for his selfish gains.
Nope, I am not finished yet.
More than two thirds of The Bear and the Nightingale is just exposition and the overarching plot has nothing to do with the endless details about Vasya’s childhood. I mean, you would think a novel spanning 16 years in the life of the main character would develop the said character but no dice. That’s actually true of most of the characters in the book in that they’re overwritten but severely underdeveloped. Anna, the step-mother, is naturally made out to hate Vasya for her wildness and special snowflake-ness and it was honestly, utterly boring to read about. All Anna is capable of doing in the presence of Vasya is shrieking at her (shows just how many times the word is mentioned in such a capacity for me to have memorized it).
The amount of exposition also didn’t help make for an exciting climax. By the time the book came around to it, I hardly cared. I usually don’t have an issue with slow-paced books but the finale is so long-drawn in this one that zzz. Why the fuck is there horse grooming going on when the villain is going to be freed any moment?! I mean, I know why but is there any need? From the way the villain is written, it sounded impossible to defeat him but then he’s defeated so easily that it’s a fucking joke. Whatever the title refers to is ridiculous, as well.
I started out being enchanted by the winter setting and the writing itself but, when I started coming across sentences like ‘the blue eyes touched her here and there,‘ I realized the writing actually isn’t all that. It is clear that the author knows her Russian folktales and whatnot but admittedly, Russian words are anglicized for aesthetics. And apparently, putting a glossary lifts up any need to expand on what a word means in context to the sentence and using it interchangeably with its English counterpart is a-okay and not at all jarring. Another issue I had is how the POV sometimes changes when a new paragraph starts in the same chapter and can we please not do that to my brain.
In all, for a book that’s a little over 300 pages I sure slugged through it. The Bear and the Nightingale is a sad book with characters that I hardly felt anything for and a few sprinkles of carefree and loving sibling dynamics that I could have used way more of. I’m quite shocked that this is a book that’s been praised left and right because it’s one of those cases where I can’t believe I’ve even read the same book. Mainly though, I’m just glad to have read and reviewed it because now I can just put it all behind me. Phew.
‘Sasha remained as expressionless as possible, as though feigning deafness would make the impious talk go away.‘
‘She almost ran on and let the night swallow her. But where was there to go?‘
Blehhhh this sounds like something I would not like. I actually wanted to read that after all the good things I’d seen but now? No nope non.
There seem to be some good elements but… that bad ones would be too much for me.
Thank you for taking the time to write this review!
Morgan @ The Bookish Beagle says
LOL so I’ve had this tab open to comment on, I was so excited to see that you reviewed this! And then I saw your GR review, womp wompppp. What a disappointment, that sucks (especially since the cover and the sequel cover are so pretty!). I really wanted to read this before and I’m shocked at how many of my friends loved it considering how much you didn’t. But everything you mention sounds awful so I think I’ll probably pass. I loved reading your review at least, thanks for writing it!
Oh man I am about a quarter of the way into the book and the dynamic with Anna is making me SO angry- I wanted to seek out reviews to see if it get better, (or if at the very least the Dad/Pyotr character gets beaten to death with hammers like he so richly deserves) so it’s disappointing, but good to know that it stays about the same…
Thank you for this review so I can feel no hesitation about tossing this one in the DNF pile