The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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A Russian fairy tale in the style of Uprooted on Netgalley? I almost squealed in delight when I saw the email and immediately requested it.

I was fooled.

Warning: the following review is critical and contains spoilers.

Reasons I’m qualified to give this review:

  1. I was born and raised in Russia. The fairy tales in this book are the ones my mother told as bed time stories just like chapter 1. This was my childhood.
  2. Fairy tale retellings are my jam. If you go to my Goodreads or book reviews tag, you will see countless books in the genre, including the compared Uprooted by Naomi Novik. I know what I’m reading.
  3. As an author myself, I understand that not every book is for everyone, and thus will not be giving a starred review so it doesn’t negatively affect the author’s ratings.

 

Before I get into the critical, I will list the good:

  1. The writing is wonderful. It’s true fairy-tale style, with beautiful and chilling description that keeps you trapped in the story.
  2. This author knows her Russian! Unlike Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo (where people were getting drunk on kvas), everything Russian feels natural. No complaints!
  3. No romance.
  4. The cover is awesome and perfect for the feel of the book.

 

And now for the main event.

  1. The book encompasses about 14 years, from when Vasya (the mc? kind of?) was just conceived to her being a preteen. We are shown (sometimes) her childhood every few years. Is this book MG, YA, or Adult? Even the author doesn’t know! 
  2. To add on to that, this book follows the POVs of every single character it introduces. And we’re talking dozens of them, some we only see once or twice, some we only see for the first half, some only in the second, with no continuity at all. None of the characters are likable. That’s including:
    1. Our ‘mc’ Vasya, who we see in glimpses of random chapters where she runs around and gets lost all the time. Vasya, who from three years old acts exactly the same when she turns thirteen. It’s like the author didn’t bother with growing her character because ‘defiant’ and ‘wild’ were enough for us  to like her.
    2. And her father, who rapes his new wife while she cries every night. Every time I see the author write about how ‘he’s a good man’ I want to close the book.
    3. And her siblings, who either disappear or berate her throughout. Even Sashka, who helped her kill a vamp at the end, fell short of being a relate-able person.
    4. Morozko, who said he needed Vasya’s power but didn’t actually want her help. ‘You will save us all’ but ‘stop asking to help, you’re actually useless’.  That whole deal was filled with so many contradictions I can’t even get it straight in my head.
    5. The step-mother, who told Vasya that to prove she wasn’t a witch, she had to get spring flowers in winter. Because that totally makes sense, right? I almost stopped reading there because it was just too much. Twelve Months is one of my favorite fairy tales, and this was plugged so horribly I’m still angry.
    6. Everyone else. The only person I was rooting for was the rusalka, and she liked drowning people.
  3. Now that we have the array of useless characters out of the way, let’s get to the story. The plot is basically ‘winter is coming’. Vasya has magical powers that can stop the Bear (evil spirit) from killing everyone in her village. How? No one knows. Apparently she has to marry Morozko. But she doesn’t. But he uses her power. But… wait what’s going on? No one knows. There is no rhyme or reason to this plot. It took 90% of the book to get to the actual story. Everything else was backstory. We don’t even see the Nightingale, which is a horse by the way, until the last few chapters. Why is it in the name? Th book should have been named The Bear and Morozko.
  4. Plot holes. So many plot holes. For example, Vasya’s father is given a talisman to give to her or his son dies. Father does not give the talisman to her. Nothing happens to the son. Dunya keeps the talisman for years, not moving the plot at all. Nothing moved the plot. All we got was ‘death is coming’ omens and people talking about how Vasya needs to get married or go to a convent, things completely irrelevant to the fairy tale.
  5. Actually, it did not feel like a fairy tale at all. It felt like reading a history book with random magical elements thrown in. So many stories and all I wanted to read about was Vasya. This could have been so much better. It could have been interesting and gripping and magical, but it was grimy and depressing. There was no light at the end of the tunnel. I truly did not feel any elation at the end, except that the book was over and I could finally start a new one.
  6. Oh and it vilifies the Christian religion -a lot- so if you’re not a fan of that you will definitely not like this book.

 

I guess I expected something different. I expected the beauty and darkness and magic of Uprooted, but this came up lacking in all of those. Sorely disappointed but I guess I can’t win them all. I would recommend this to people who want to do some research on Russian history and lore, but if you’re looking for an enchanting tale this isn’t it.

 

 

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4 thoughts on “The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

  1. Pingback: Den of Wolves by Juliet Marillier | Words Matter

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