The Bear and the Nightingale is a very well written and well researched story of the change from paganism to Christianity in historic Russia. In fact, I had a hard time discerning if this was more historical, magical realism, or urban fantasy since the story stays grounded yet magic peeks continually around the edges. Arden doesn’t go for over-idealized characters and each certainly has a personality of their own. And yet, admittedly, I had a hard time plowing through most of the book. I found I didn’t connect with the characters, didn’t want to read about Christianity ruthlessly obliterating the magical world, and felt the book was missing charm and playfulness in its over-earnest storytelling.
Story: Out in the more deserted reaches of Russia, a nobleman raises his family quietly yet efficiently. His wife’s family had a mysterious background with connections to the Russian Czar. And now his youngest daughter, Vasilisa, is exhibiting the same fae traits of her mother and grandmother. While his sons and daughters move in the political world and make advantageous marriages that take them far from home, Vasilisa is left with her new stepmother – a woman afraid of the old world magic and very much invested in Christianity for protection. When a minister with a ‘golden tongue’ is sent to the family to keep him from over-influencing the Czar’s court with his entrancing Christian sermons, Vasila and her old world magic will become embattled with her unhinged stepmother and the zealous priest. Meanwhile, the fortunes of her family continue to morph as the political landscape shifts constantly.
The original wording of the book makes this sound like a fairy tale but I feel this is far too serious and grounded for that categorization (unless one harkens back to the grim original versions of most fairy tales). And in the beginning, I felt this was a bit more of a magical realism, with otherworldly creatures occasionally appearing in the every day life of a mansion buried deep in a far off forest. But then the middle part of the book took a different direction with the introduction of the Christian priest and zealot stepmother, each determined to punish Vasilisa into foregoing her paganism and embracing their faith. I found this whole middle part to be tedious, especially since the blurb on the book had promised a ‘Jack Frost’ type of character but by 3/4 he had only appeared in one or two short scenes.
I also found I didn’t like many of the characters. Arden took pains to make them grounded and real – with all the foibles and contrariness that can be expected. Vasilisa was a main character but the book follows the viewpoints of several people, including her brothers, sister, stepmother, the priest, the Czar, etc. In that way, it felt a bit overwritten as so many first novels can be; the author feeling the need to explain the big picture through all the POVs instead of letting the story organically unfold and trusting the reader to understand why things were happening as they did.
Because the book is somewhat of a mixed bag, I admittedly also have very mixed reactions to it. Once it veered toward the battle of religions, it completely lost me and I had a hard time wanting to pick it up again. But at the same time, I also was very impressed with the writing depth and the assimilating mood that Arden so effectively created.
Would I recommend this? Absolutely. But at the same time, I have to admit that for me personally, I did not enjoy the Bear and the Nightingale as much as I would have hoped. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.