Why You Need to Read: “The Bear and the Nightingale”

Winternight Trilogy, #1: The Bear and the Nightingale

By: Katherine Arden

Published: January 10, 2017

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Folklore/Magic Realism/Coming-of-Age

            Vasya’s head hurt with thinking. If the domovoi wasn’t real, then what about the others? The vodyanoy in the river, the twig-man in the trees? The rusalka, the polevik, the dvorovoi? Had she imagined them all? Was she mad? (11: Domovoi).

            Have you ever wondered how or what got you into reading a book or a book series? Oftentimes, we read books due to their popularity or recommendations from other readers. Then, there are times when our curiosity drives us to read a book. For example, the first edition of the U.S. print has a woman standing in front of a cabin in the woods on a snowy night. Add the book’s description and the fact that the ebook was on sale, and you have the short version of how I got into reading The Bear and the Nightingale, the first book in the Winternight Trilogy, and the debut novel by Katherine Arden. 

            The story begins before the protagonist, Vasya, is born. Marina Ivanovna is the wife of Pyotr Vladimirovich, a great lord or a boyar, and they live in the North (of Russia) at the edge of the forest in a town called Lesnaya Zemlya. Marina is the daughter of the last Grand Prince of Moscow, and her mother was rumored to be a swan-maiden who captured the prince’s attention. Yet, due to the fear of the Church, Marina married off to a boyar away from Moscow, where she bore her husband many children. When her youngest, Vasilisa was born, she died, but Marina always knew that Vasya would have the same “Gift” her mother had. Vasya, the youngest of five children, is raised by her father, her nurse—Dunya—and, her siblings: Alyosha, Olga, Sasha and Kolya. Vasya grows into a willful child to the distress of her family. When Vasya is about 5 or 6 years-old, her father travels to Moscow in search of a new wife and he brings his sons with him. By the time the family returns, Anna Ivanovna is with them. Later on, Sasha and Olga will leave Lesnaya Zemlya for Moscow in order to fulfill their duties. Meanwhile, both Vasya and Anna are able to see beings, or chyerti, who occupy the house, the lake, the forest, etc. Anna believes them to be demons, while Vasya talks to them, follows their instructions, and learns from them. At the same time, Father Konstantin Nikonovich—a young and beautiful priest whose talent for painting icons has led to him having a huge following of worshippers—has been sent to Lesnaya Zemlya to replace the priest there that died. As young as she is, Vasya’s antagonists are adults: her stepmother and the new priest, adults who envy and admire Vasya. All of the characters are people who watch Vasya grow from child to adolescent in Russia during a time when Christianity was becoming the dominant religion and when women—especially high-born ones—were expected to follow strict societal guidelines. Vasya, unknowingly, fights these societal expectations and maneuvers her way through them as she approaches adolescence (which, was considered to be adulthood at that time). This puts her at odds with her stepmother and the priest, while becoming allies with the chyerti, fae folk from Russian folklore. 

            The plot in this book sees the upbringing of Vasya and her life in the Russian countryside. Given the circumstances of her existence and her birth, Vasya always had the attention of her family, even if it were for the wrong reasons. Vasya’s father, nurse and siblings see Vasya as a reminder of her mother and her grandmother (based on rumors and gossip). Both Anna and Father Konstantin see Vasya as an individual who goes against the “Rites of the Church,” and seek to “save her soul.” Vasya is an independent girl who communicates with the chyerti (of the old religion) and becomes their ally. Vasya learns the old magic away from the capital, which allows her to carry on without scrutiny. Yet, it seems only Dunya knows how special Vasya is to the chyerti. There are three subplots in this novel. The first is the animosity Anna and Father Konstantin have towards Vasya. Vasya is the willful and carefree daughter of a boyar who listens to the old magic of the chyerti, while her stepmother and the priest try and fail to bring her to heel. The second subplot involves the struggle Russia is dealing with involving pagan versus Christianity amongst the rulers. War is coming, but it is difficult to say who Russia’s adversaries will be. The third subplot follows Vasya’s “Gifts” and what that means for her. Everyone else—her family, the chyerti, her nurse, the priest—seem to know how important Vasya is to the world and their survival, except for Vasya. And, there are powerful beings who are interested in her as well. 

            The narrative in The Bear and the Nightingale is one of an erziehungsroman, or a novel of upbringing. This is different from an entwicklungsroman (“a novel of—a child’s—character development”) or a bildungsroman (“a coming of age” story) in that the narration follows the protagonist from childhood and focuses on their early life and upbringing. Thus, the sequence of the novel is set in the time of Vasya’s birth to childhood to early adolescence while learning of her family and her upbringing. There are multiple points-of-view and that’s because of the 3rd-person omniscient P.O.V., which allows the reader(s) to know what all of the characters—including the protagonist—are thinking and what their motivations are throughout the story. In addition, the streams-of-consciousness of the characters match the present time sequence of the story. So, not only are all the narrators/characters reliable narrators, but also are understandable because readers are aware of their emotions and their motivations. All of these elements of the narrative make it easy to follow. 

            The style Katherine Arden uses for her debut novel blends folklore and history to present a historical fantasy with elements of Russian folklore. The Bear and the Nightingale is the first book in a trilogy based on the story of Vasilisa the Beautiful. At the same time, the historical context allows for the story to be “more believable,” so that terminology and the word choice used throughout the narrative embellishes the story and presents the reality within the fiction and demonstrates the culture of Russia’s past. The mood in this novel is dominance. Who has control of whom? Who is the dominant one in a household, in a region, in a kingdom? Is there a dominant religion? The tone in the novel is rebellion. Vasya is not the only character who rebels against societal expectations set upon her. Then again, the other characters and the reader(s) witness what happens to those who allow others to make choices for them. Please note: the glossary will help with understanding the context of the words and the terms used throughout the novel. 

            The appeal for The Bear and the Nightingale have been positive. It’s hard to believe that this is the author’s debut novel. Katherine Arden was even nominated for the John W. Campbell Award—now called, the Astounding Award for Best New Writer—which is announced during the Hugo Awards. The popularity of this book will have readers thinking of authors such as Madeline Miller and Marion Zimmer Bradley for retelling stories of myths, legends and fairy tales. This book does have lasting appeal and it is a great addition to the speculative fiction canon. Fans of Spinning Silver, Gods of Jade and Shadow, The Sisters of the Winter Wood, The Poppy War, Empire of Sand, and The City of Brass will enjoy this book the most. The rest of the trilogy—The Girl in the Tower and The Winter of the Witch—are worth reading as well. 

            The Bear and the Nightingale is a brilliant debut novel that introduces many readers to Russian folklore through the historical world-building and the rounded characters. The story is the beginning of Vasya’s life and her adventures, and all of the elements of fairy tales of older variants (i.e. “the price of deals”) are found within this book as well. This book will make readers crave winter and snow, and will know the beauty and the magic found in one’s backyard. The old magic has not been forgotten. 

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!! 

Why You Need to Read: “The Name of All Things”

A Chorus of Dragons #2: The Name of All Things

By: Jenn Lyons                                                                       Audiobook: 25 hours 46 minutes

Published: October 29, 2019                                        Narrated by: Saskia Maarleveld, Dan

Genre: Fantasy                                                                                   Bittner, Lauren Fortgang

                                                      

            In the twentieth year of the hawk and the lion, beneath the silver sword, the sleeping beast’s prison shatters. The dragon of swords devours demon falls as night takes the land, (61: Under The Waters). 

            Cliffhangers have always been an interesting method of maintaining the attention of an audience, etc. Narratives in all formats—oral stories, books, movies, TV shows, and video games—continue to use this method of storytelling in order to let the audience know when one part of the story ends and when another begins, or to continue the action and/or the pacing of a story where it left off. In the case of Jenn Lyon’s A Chorus of Dragons series (not a trilogy, but will be 5 books), readers get both and so much more in Book 2: The Name of All Things.

            The protagonist in this story is Janel Theranon, a noblewoman from Jorat (a dominion in the Quuros Empire). She has been looking for Kihrin D’Mon since their first meeting, which was during the events involving Kihrin, his family, and the Emperor. Unfortunately, Kihrin doesn’t remember meeting Janel—with good reason—but, Janel doesn’t hold that against him. Ironically, the two outlaw nobles have been searching for each other without knowing where to locate the other one. Janel had lived a simple life as the granddaughter and heir of Count Jarin of Tolamer. She identifies herself as a “stallion,” or a Joratese whose gender—not sex—and gender expression is male. After an attack on her home and the citizens, Janel masquerades as “The Black Knight” in order to bring the culprits to justice. Instead, Janel’s true identity is revealed and she is sent on a quest to find a mystical spear so she can kill a dragon. Accompanying Janel is her friend, Brother Qown, who is a chronicler. The two friends have a long and arduous journey in locating Kihrin and the spear. Janel is from Jorat, a dominion known for its horses, and she was raised to become the next Count of Tolamer. Janel is smart, headstrong and combative, and she is known for her fighting skills and her willingness to protect her people. 

            The plot in The Name of All Things has four parts. Part I introduces Kihrin (and readers) to Janel’s life as a Count and the first of the events which caused her to leave Tolamer. Part II has Janel learning about her heritage, her abilities, and about “The Name of All Things,” another one of the eight Cornerstones. Not to mention, Janel meets and puts up with Relos Var. Part III has Janel reciting prophecies while surviving captivity without her abilities and while “conforming” to her opposing gender. Part IV brings all of the events back to the present and has Kihrin and Janel fulfilling prophecies whether or not they want to do so. The plot delves into Janel’s life, especially after it’s been uprooted, which takes place at the same time Kihrin’s life was upended. This is essential to know because this lets the protagonists (and the readers) know that more was happening throughout the Quuros Empire, and it seems that Relos Var is the central figure. The subplots include Armageddon, and the quest for magical artifacts and mystical weapons, which is familiar to readers. Another subplot is the idea of gender and its practices in Jorat. While gender is binary amongst the Joratese (and in our reality), it is NOT determined based on genitalia, but on the societal role and how each individual expresses their gender. These subplots are necessary in order to keep the plot going at an appropriate rate and they keep the narrative going as well. Just like Kihrin, Janel has a role to carryout for a prophecy, but she doesn’t know what it’s going to be. 

            Once again, the narrative jumps between the past and the present, with 3 different narrators. Kihrin serves as the narrator for the present mostly because he’s the person everyone is looking for. The flashbacks of events are told from the points-of-view of both Janel Theranon and Brother Qown. It is important to know while both of these characters are recounting the experiences to Kihrin, Brother Qown is a chronicler, so most of his recounts have been written down already (probably). This means he’s writing down Janel’s experiences as they overlap his in order to provide a complete story. Remember, someone else is reading this completed chronicle. The world-building comes from Janel’s P.O.V. as she explains Joratese culture, magic, and the events that occurred while Kihrin was with the Black Brotherhood, and there is a lot. We learn more about Relos Var, and about a few recurring characters both new and old. The narrative can be followed and this is because the audience (remember the reader) knows the narrator(s) is reliable. Given everything that’s happened so far, it seems to be the only choice.

            The style Jenn Lyons uses for The Name of All Things follows the method of chronicles. Early written narratives were written down in order to include as many details as possible. In other words, whatever was said by the oral storyteller was written down by a chronicler. Early epic stories such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Aeneid were told orally and then written down, so however the length of the story was determined by the oral variant. A recent example of this style within a fantasy novel is The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. A chronicler is writing the story of the protagonist as it is being told to him, so the length is determined by how much the storyteller is willing to say to the chronicler. The mood in The Name of All Things is hostility and chaos. The former is due to the demons and the dragons set loose within the Empire, and the latter is due to how and why Kihrin had to flee the Capital. The tone is motivation after enduring traumatic events. We know Kihrin’s story and we learn Janel’s. Both leave us with questions and admiration for them being able to continue living their lives, even if it is as fugitives. Please note: the maps, the Foreword, and the Appendices are essential for the reading of this book.  

            The appeal for this book have been positive. There are many readers who enjoyed The Name of All Things just as much or more than The Ruin of Kings. This series continues to explore the tropes of prophecies and the ideas and the origins regarding them. Plus, Jenn Lyons does an excellent job incorporating the themes of gender—not sex and sexual orientation—into her story. This is a reflection of the reality in fiction in that the concept of gender is more complex and more fluid than it being binary. The world-building is done in a way where readers know another character from a different region within the same country/empire is the focus. Not to mention, we get an update on what happened to some of the minor characters from the first book. Once again, I listened to the audiobook, and this time, there were 3 new narrators. It took some time getting used to the “new voice” for Kihrin, but after telling myself that Kihrin is supposed to sound “more mature,” it made the listening experience go smoothly. Saskia Maarleveld, Dan Bittner, and Lauren Fortgang keeps the narrative going at a good pace, and keeps the listeners engaged in the story. The cliffhanger at the end will have fans excited for The Memory of Souls, which is the third book in a 5-book series and NOT the third and final book in a trilogy as I stated in my review for The Ruin of Kings. Remember, authors will answer your questions. The Memory of Souls will be released in August 2020.

            The Name of All Things is an achievement in world-building and in overlapping narratives. The characters remain as engaging as before, the dragons and the magic remain deadly, and the immortals are in it for themselves. Not to mention, the world won’t end due to just one prophecy. I’m looking forward to reading what happens in the next book, and I know the chaos will continue to grow.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5).