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 Winter of the Witch”

Winternight Trilogy: Book 3: The Winter of the Witch

By: Katherine Arden

Published: January 9, 2019

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Fairy Tale Retelling, Folklore, Magic Realism

PLEASE NOTE: The following contains minor spoilers from this novel and the series. You have been warned.

            “You are a fool, man of God,” he said. You never understood.”

            Konstantin said, “I never understood what?”

            “That I do keep faith, in my own fashion,” said the Bear.

(Chapter 23: “Faith and Fear”)

            The Winter of the Witch is the third and final book in Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy. What started with The Bear and the Nightingale—and yes, readers need to read that book and the second book, The Girl in the Tower, in order to know what is going on in the third book—ends with this beautiful end to a beautiful trilogy. This historical fiction fantasy starts where the second book ended, with Moscow recovering from both a fire and the actions of a wicked magician. Once again, Vasilisa Petrovna’s actions have caught up with her, and she barely escapes with her life. Then, she must come up with a plan to unite ALL of Russia—humans and chyerti—to fight against the invading Tatars, and to find balance between two belief systems—Christianity and Paganism.

            The characters are those we were introduced to from the previous books: Vasya, Sasha (her brother), Olga (her sister), Marya (her niece), Solovey (her stallion), Dmitrii Ivanovich (the Grand Prince), Morozko (the frost-demon), Medved (the chaos-spirit), Konstantin Nikonovich (the charlatan priest), and Varvara (the Head servant). New characters are introduced and mentioned as well. Together, all of the characters are active in Arden’s story from the roles they play to the answers they provide to the readers’—and characters’—concerns and questions. Each character is well developed and motivated to accomplish their goals. The conviction in the protagonist, the antagonist(s), and the other characters remind the reader(s) that more scenarios are happening than the characters and we are aware of.

            The plot, as I mentioned earlier, is both a continuation of the events in the previous book, and a continuation of Vasya’s growth into an adult. Christianity is now the dominant religion in Russia with the amount of people who keep the older traditions decreasing, the Tatars continue their campaign to take over Russia, ancient feuds continue to play on, and Vasya is a step closer to coming into her own and accepting her destiny. These subplots are part of the main plot—Russia is changing, but not all things fade away with those changes—and they cannot wait to be dealt with. Each change, along with its dilemma, is addressed again and again until the story’s end. It should be mentioned that each conflict does not get resolved and that is due to the reality found within the story. Conflict—from a minor issue to total chaos—never goes away. The three conflicts found within the plot are resolved, so that story ends, but the lives of the characters leaves for an ambiguous continuation and hope for both the surviving characters, and for the reader(s). 

            The narrative switches between the points-of-view of several characters: Vasya, Sasha, Olga, Konstantin Nikonovich, the Bear, Varvara, etc. Just like in other stories with multiple POVs, readers learn everything that is happening everywhere concurrently. The aftermath of Vasya’s actions affect her throughout the story; Sasha and Olga come to terms with their family’s history, gifts, and future; Konstantin Nikonovich achieves his goals with a bittersweet feeling to his conscience; and, the Bear, the Winter King, and Varvara have their roles to play in the war. Then, there is the other war that’s coming for all denizens of Russia. If it’s not one problem, then it is another problem. Remember, the first war for power happened in The Girl in the Tower, which was a short time ago within the narrative. Arden presents the conflicts and then shows how all of her characters deal with them within the story. Since the narrative is given from multiple viewpoints without the other characters knowing what is happening to other characters, readers know that each narrative is reliable and realistic. The resolution does not give the characters enough knowledge of what happened to the other characters as well, and that provides a believable ending. 

            The style of writing the author uses in this book is the same as it was in the previous books in the series. Magic realism is a genre of writing that is often used alongside the historical fiction genre. The difference is that folklore drives the narrative of a magic realism story. Arden’s style follows this method of writing. The aspect that makes Arden’s trilogy standout is the knowledge of the lore the denizens in the story have, because the lore remains as the world changes. Devout Christians are able to see the chyerti, and there are people who practice both “faiths.” One of the best things about the author’s trilogy is the way she reminds readers that old magic and ancient tales will always remain with the people (hence, the term “folklore”). Everyone knows them, some are aware of them, and few have the ability to use the deeper magic. Folklore is part of a culture, and Arden incorporated the importance of a country unifying, not just for its survival, but also for its way of life through their culture. The author did a beautiful job expressing this within her writing. 

            The appeal surrounding this novel is interesting. I’ve started reading the Winternight Trilogy from the release of The Bear and the Nightingale in 2017 and I knew Katherine Arden was one of my new favorite authors. I received an ARC of The Winter of the Witch, and while I was reading and gushing through it, I found that other readers picked up the first book out of curiosity and enjoyed it, too! If The Bear and the Nightingale was the first book that introduced us to Katherine Arden, then The Winter of the Witch is the book that cements her as one of the best speculative fiction authors in this era of publication. Katherine Arden takes folklore and reshapes it into a new story to be read and enjoyed the same way Neil Gaiman, Nnedi Okorafor and Naomi Novik have done within their books. The Winternight Trilogy proves that the speculative fiction canon has room for authors who write across multiple elements within the genre like Katherine Arden.  

            I am proud to say that I’ve read Katherine Arden’s books since the publication of her first novel, and I’ve enjoyed them all! Now, while this review is about the last book in the trilogy, I still have to mention all of the books in the trilogy. There are many trilogies in the speculative fiction genre; and, when it comes to the trilogies I’ve read from that genre, the Winternight Trilogy leaves me with the same level of satisfaction as His Dark Materials (by Philip Pullman) and The Broken Earth (by N.K. Jemisin) trilogies. Anyone who knows about how I feel about those trilogies, know that’s a big deal! Reading Vasya’s journey from childhood to adolescence to adulthood was an absolute joy and I’m glad Katherine Arden shared her story with us. I recommend this novel, and the series, to all readers of the speculative fiction genre. None of you will be disappointed.

My Rating:  MUST Read It Now!