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 Priory of the Orange Tree”

The Priory of the Orange Tree

By: Samantha Shannon                                    Audiobook: 25 hours 52 minutes

Published: February 26, 2019                          Narrated by: Liyah Summers

Genre: Epic Fantasy

            A low growl rolled through Nayimathun. She spoke as if to herself. “He is stirring. The shadow lies heavy on the West,” (Chapter 25, East).

            Avid readers—especially those who read history, biographies and memoirs, and speculative fiction—do not fear tackling “long” books. In fact, many readers get upset when a long book is about to come to an end. Then, there are “long” books in which readers ask themselves, “how am I going to get through this?” This is what I asked myself when I heard about The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon. This 800+ page book was declared “one of the Best of 2019,” and other readers who have managed to finish the book had nothing but positive things to say about it. First, I borrowed the standalone novel from my library and started to read it. However, I knew I would need more than 2 weeks to read this book (library policy). So, I bought the eBook—when it was on sale—and I kept reading. Yet, I felt I wasn’t reading it at my usual pace. So then, I bought the audiobook and started listening to it from the beginning. It took me two months, but I enjoyed every minute of it! And, I bought the printed edition because I wanted my own hardcopy edition of the book (and it was half off)! I don’t regret purchasing these editions of this novel! The Priory of the Orange Tree is Samantha Shannon’s epic fantasy novel about female leaders, dragons, conspiracies—both political and historical—imminent danger, and identity. Don’t allow the length of the story to intimidate you, this epic tale details everything that occurs throughout this fantasy adventure!

            Like most epic fantasies, there are several characters who are part of the story and play their roles. Yet, there are three protagonists who provide both the point-of-view and the connections both to the events and to several other main characters throughout the narrative. First, there is Tané, a poor orphan who is given the rare opportunity to train as a dragonrider. Overcoming the rigorous training and her destitute status, Tané is about to Test to become a dragonrider for her island home in the East. However, on the night before the Passage, an outsider washes on to the beach. Fearing that the outsider will cause a delay of the Tests—outsiders are quarantined in order to prevent any illnesses from spreading into the population— Tané hides the outsider at the home of a resident who is also not from the island. This leads to the second protagonist, Doctor Niclays Roos (a male) who resides in the East in exile after failing to please the Queen in the West. This Queen in the West, Sabran the Ninth of House Berethnet, has remained unwed since her coronation. This is a dilemma because one of her roles as queen is to bear a daughter in order to protect her kingdom from an ancient evil. However, Queen Sabran’s time consists of avoiding assassination attempts and suffering from vivid nightmares. But, she has allies. One of them is the third protagonist, Ead Duryan—one of the ladies-in-waiting to the Queen—who is really a member of a hidden society of mages whose mission centers around protecting the royal bloodline of House Berethnet, and the entire world, from Armageddon. These protagonists are rounded—they have strengths and weaknesses, they are selfish and sympathetic, they are motivated, and they are survivors—which make them believable to the readers as their narratives are presented to them. These protagonists are neither royalty nor the elite social class, which is relevant because they are able to maneuver through their societies with access to the knowledge and the information given to them by the upper class. At the same time, these protagonists are able to uncover the truth of the past for themselves and of their societies and the world they live in. And, it’s up to them to try and save it. Yet, out of the three protagonists, it is both Tané and Ead Duryan who demonstrate the most character development. Even though both women make mistakes and lose the trust of their friends and allies, they hold on to their convictions that danger is coming. Meanwhile, Doctor Niclays Roos decides to start up the same research that led to his exile. He doesn’t have anything to lose, but his experience is essential to the plot. Although, the band of characters make it difficult to keep track of at times, they appear and are mentioned enough for readers to recall who they are and their relationships to the protagonists and the other main characters. 

            The plot—similar to other fantasy and/or adventure tales—involves prophecies, magic and saving the world. About 1,000 years ago, heroes of the world defeated and sealed an ancient threat. However, the seal would break after a thousand years, so the heroes and the armies left and established new kingdoms—and secret orders—in order to prepare for the return of that ancient threat. Unfortunately, history becomes myth, and religion and legend with all sources of information becomes lost or altered. The story and the plot take place just as the 1,000 years are up, and the descendants are searching for a way to defeat the threat before it emerges. The subplots are how each of the four continents are preparing for Armageddon. Obviously, many do not believe or know that this event is about to occur. It takes time for the plot to develop because all of the subplots—from the introductions of the characters, the settings and the conflicts to the character development and the world-building—must develop alongside the plot. This is a slow, but an appropriate rate for the plots and the subplots to develop and to converge because this is a standalone novel. After the subplots have developed—not resolved—then the plot continues to develop on its own and at its own pace. 

            The narrative is told in present time and from the P.O.V.s of the protagonists. Each of the six parts of this story presents the stream-of-consciousness of Tané, Doctor Roos and Ead. This allows readers to comprehend the motives, the culture and the decisions they make throughout the story. Given that the protagonists have their desires and the events are happening in real-time, each part of the narrative is reliable because the revelations and the reactions are believable and the situations the characters find themselves in are because of the decisions and the demeanors of the characters. The narrative is easy to follow because of the step-by-step action and reaction narration presented to the readers. 

            The style Samantha Shannon uses for this novel is a combination of fantasy tropes, history, literature and folklore. In other words, The Priory of the Orange Tree is a reimagination of true events and culture. History and folklore such as Christianity, the Amazons, and dragons were influences for this novel. Historical moments and the literature that were written—the Crusades and stories such as The Faerie Queen by Edmund Spenser and The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley—are also found within the pages of the novel. The style the author uses for this story is not new; in fact, folklore and religion are often retellings of both history and culture. However, readers become aware of this while reading the story, but would they ever consider a similar possibility that the same thing could be possible with our life and culture? The mood of the novel is foreboding and callowness. The tone is what to do and how to handle information based on what actually took place and how the truth can remain hidden within all of the stories, the mysteries, and the lies for hundreds of years. The tone and the mood work in tandem, but this plot device is revealed to the readers through a handful of characters who know the (actual) truth. This reflects reality because the truth of events is revealed to a select few of people (typically) and that is only when the truth surfaces (not always).

            The appeal of this novel have been noteworthy. The Priory of the Orange Tree was labeled “one of the Best Fantasy Books of 2019,” by numerous critics and fans of epic fantasy written by Jacqueline Carey and Brandon Sanderson or any standalone fantasy story will enjoy this book the most. As for the narration of the audiobook, Liyah Summers did a great job voicing all of the characters—male and female—without there being any confusion as to which character was speaking and the accents used for each dialect of speech. Her pacing of the narration worked for both the length of the novel and the given size of the world as hinted from the numerous locations. Liyah Summers was a great choice for this large narration and its large assembly of characters. 

            The Priory of the Orange Tree is an ambitious story of strong female characters, dragons and wyverns, magic, conspiracies, lost histories, and the end-of-the-world. Anyone who is familiar with epic fantasy stories should read this book; and, fans of fantasy and speculative fiction should not be daunted by the size of the book, but know that the story within it contains a world with rich characters whose lives are about to become interconnected for reasons lost to their histories. Not only will readers be satisfied with the narration up to the end, but also feel a sense of accomplishment for completing this amazing and adventurous fantasy story. Readers will find the time and a way to read this book as I did.

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