Friday, 2 June 2017

Review: 'The Bear and the Nightingale' by Katherine Arden

GIVE ME ALL THE RUSSIAN FAIRYTALE ADAPTATIONS RIGHT NOW! OK, I'm sorry, was that a bit much? I just really love Russian folk tales and I also really love fairy tale adaptations, so The Bear and the Nightingale is like the perfect mix. It also came at just the right time for me, as I was hitting another, rather deep, reading slump and had no idea what was going to drag me out of it this time. Turns out it was Katherine Arden's beautifully atmospheric novel. And of course it was a novel I had accidentally ignored as it slowly gathered dust on my digital bookshelf. Shame on me, I know. But I got there in the end and it was glorious. Thanks to Ebury Publishing, Del Rey and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 12/01/2017
Publisher: Ebury Publishing, Del Rey
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, willfull 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 one who can keep the darkness at bay. 
Atmospheric and enchanting, with an engrossing adventure at its core, The Bear and the Nightingale is perfect for readers of Naomi Novik's Uprooted, Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, and Neil Gaiman.
Fairy tales are a magical thing because they make no sense and yet they make the most sense. This may seem like a contradiction, but fairy tales thrive off those. You can only see what something is if you believe in it, and yet it can be whatever you believe it. Fairy tales can combine the familiar and the uncanny, and switch it around. Whether it is Christianity which becomes abstract and absurd, while the pagan gods feel comfortable and familiar, or the suffocating love of parents that eventually aids salvation. This may all sound very abstract, but, in my opinion, it is the best novels that make you revel in these kinds of thoughts. Many Western European fairy tales have been retold many times, most of its themes explored almost exhaustively to the point where it's a rare adaptation that manages to add something new or interesting to the story. To me, Eastern European and Middle Eastern tales are much more unknown, and therefore make for very exciting and new reading. The Bear and the Nightingale therefore held the same kind of fascination as A Thousand Nights for me. Discovering something new, new in the sense of generations old, discovering old traditions, old tales, old myths, is wonderful because it enriches the way you read any new book and look at your own traditions.

At the heart of The Bear and the Nightingale is Vasya, a girl born from her mother's determination and death. Growing up with a wildness and freedom in her, she sees what others only believe in, communicates with what many fear. There is not necessarily a major reveal in which Vasya's powers erupt for the first time, as many other YA novels do feature. Rather, the magic around her has always been a part of Vasya and the reader can feel this from the very beginning. When the more supernatural elements of the novel come into play and horrify some of the more Christian characters, it forms a nice contrast to Vasya's acceptance. Her headstrong and independent ways never feel forced, Arden never pushes her to be more rebellious or adventurous than feels natural. Partially this lies in the fact that we spend enough time with Vasya from young child to maturing girl, without having annoying romances or twists forced upon her. Her narrative is occasionally interrupted with chapters or aside dedicated to other characters, informing the reader as to what's happening around her. This way the reader occasionally knows more than Vasya, endearing her even more. And as the plot of the novel speeds up, growing more intense by the chapter, Arden doesn't neglect her characterisation. The work she puts in in the first chapters really pays off here, allowing her to increase the more fantastical elements of the novel without losing its grip on reality.

There was a strange sense of nostalgia and sadness to The Bear and the Nightingale. This didn't make it a sad reading experience, but rather made me all the more fonder of the novel. It's almost as if all the characters know they are living in a time that is passing, that their traditions will, if not fade, recede to the shadows and become stories fondly remembered rather than strongly believed in. It makes finishing the novel a shame, because now the reader themselves will also have to leave this world behind. We can revisit it, but it won't be a whole new world to discover, rather, it will be a fond retreading of remembered paths. (Although thankfully the beginning of a trilogy, so hopefully Arden continues along this path and brings us more new old legends to revisit.) This is part of the beauty of The Bear and the Nightingale and other brilliant fairy tale adaptations, that they tap into the timelessness, that is yet dated, of old folk tales. They remain true, while becoming fantastical.

Katherine Arden's writing style is beautiful. Her characters and settings are both fantastical and incredibly grounded. She describes the Russian landscape in such a way that you can feel the cold and see the trees. She describes the house spirits in the same way, their appearances seeming as natural as the feelings of a young girl growing up. Her characters become dear to the reader, as do the settings, and the time flies by while you're reading The Bear and the Nightingale. I also really enjoyed the way she kept some Russian words in her writing, which settled her narrative even more in Russian folklore. Her writing flows so easily that the pages fly by and you reach the end of the novel long before you're ready for it. No matter what mood she tries to create, she nails it: suspense, the fantastical, mystery, coming of age, it all works. The fact that this is a debut novel still blows me away and I can't wait to read what else she comes out with. (It's coming soon, right?)

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

I absolutely adored The Bear and the Nightingale and will most definitely be rereading it. Thankfully the second novel in the trilogy, The Girl in the Tower, is coming out next December so that gives me plenty of time for a reread or two. I'd recommend this to fans of folklore, fantasy and fairy tales (the best F-words in the world).

1 comment:

  1. "a strange sense of nostalgia and sadness" - that's a great way to put it! I enjoyed this book back in February but couldn't quite pinpoint what I loved about it.