THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE by Katherine Arden is a beautiful book. It has a gorgeous front cover, and the story inside is delightfully magical. This debut novel tells the story of a young girl, Vasilisa Petrovna – Vasya to her family: the youngest child of Pytor Vladimirovich and Marina Ivanovna. THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE follows Vasya, as she grows up, the daughter of a lord in a small Russian village. Vasya isn’t quite like the other girls, not even her elder sister. Her life changes with the arrival of her father’s second wife, Anna Ivanovna, and Father Konstantin Nikonovich.
THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE is a magical Russian fairy tale, but at its heart it is a story about family. Arden beautifully evokes the hard cold beauty of Russian life in the fourteenth century in a small village, as well as the gross opulence of Moscow’s Tsars. Although THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE is without a doubt Vasya’s story, Arden splits the narrative focus between four characters as they all play a pivotal role in the tale: Vasya, Pytor, Anna, and Father Konstantin. For me this split narrative focus worked well as it allowed a broader picture of events to be painted. I especially liked the fact that this was done through third person narration as it allowed me a bit more insight into the characters than I would have otherwise achieved.
If you have read BLOOD RED, SNOW WHITE by Marcus Sedgwick then I think you will enjoy THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE – I certainly did. Although BLOOD RED, SNOW WHITE is a young adult novel and is set in the twentieth century I think the two books have a similar feel – particularly the fairy tale aspect of both stories. I do think if you have a good knowledge of Russian history and folklore then you will definitely enjoy THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE as I think Arden has left a few “Easter eggs” for people with such knowledge to enjoy. I only know a little, but I still found the story engaging and easy to follow. The book did start a little slow, but once I got into the story it was an engrossing tale.
The way Arden blended the everyday and the fantastical was brilliantly done; the story reads like a “real” fairy tale. I also liked the fact that we get to know Vasya before events come to a head. All the characters felt very real, even those who were not human. If you are looking for something a little dark, but full of hope, to welcome in the New Year then THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE is definitely a book you should be picking up. It is truly magical.