The Bear and the Nightingale’s strength is the amazing setting of 14th century Russia, where folklore and fantastical elements mix seamlessly with the historical fiction elements. Arden delivers a standout debut novel that starts off a little sluggish but has one of the most satisfying endings of a book I’ve read in a long time. Vasya is a strong girl of a heroine. We see young Vasya grow up, bad things happen to her family, some of her siblings get married off, and the entire family attempts to live a brutal life in the rural northern wilderness of Russia. Vasya can always see the old spirits that inhabit the old land and woods. Most of the spirits help protect the Russian people from evil spirits in exchange for a little bit of food. When a Christian priest comes to the small town wanting to save the village that Vasya’s father is the lord of, an old evil, sees an opportunity to become powerful by making the people stop believing in the old ways, and getting rid of the protection spirits. Vasya must embrace what makes her different and save her family.
The setting of this book is amazing. Where Vasya lives, they have winter 8 out of the 12 months. The reader learns about how these people survive a land that is so harsh and unforgiving. I would definitely recommend everyone to research Russian ovens, as they play a huge part of the story. I just love Russian history and culture. I find the names, language, and cultural to be utterly fascinating. Placing this story in a time when Orthodox Christianity was spreading through the empire and the decline of pagan beliefs was a great idea by Arden. I don’t think that this book is overly harsh on Christianity. The problems with the religion are contained in the story and I don’t believe that Arden’s purpose was to criticize today’s Christianity. I would like to read this story again sometime with more of a historical knowledge of the time because when Vasya’s father and brothers visit Moscow, there is a lot of information being thrown at the reader about marriages and alliances that really needs a stronger historical context than I have.
Vasya is a character you are going to enjoy. She is tenacious and highly independent. Throughout the story, she is told that she must act her part as a woman but she goes against what is thought to be correct lady behavior. She is supposed to want to get married and raise her own family but she does not want that yet. She wants to help people, explore the world, ride horses, and talk with wood spirits. Vasya is extremely brave in this book, maybe a bit too much at times, but I am willing to overlook that because she is such a likable character.
This is a slow read at times, at least it was for me. The main reason it was a slow read was because the beginning skipped ahead in time at different intervals. We didn’t get to the actual story that Arden wanted to focus on until about half way through the book. I am alright with this because the second half of the book was so strong. The fantasy elements really become the focus of this story in the second half but because it is based in reality so strongly it never felt out of place or unbelievable and I think that works really well with fairytale stories.
I am looking forward to seeing where Arden takes this series if it becomes a connected series. I probably will wait until the paperback comes out to grab my own copy of this book but it is worth the blind buy if you think you’ll like it. I think if you like The Golem and the Jinni that you would enjoy this book. Both strengths of each book line up together, well researched, fantastic setting, strong characters, and believable fantasy elements. I can see Arden only becoming better in the future.
19/25 Possible Score
3 – Plot
4 – Characters
4 – Setting/World Building
4 – Writing Style
4 – Heart & Mind Aspect