The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
From the very beginning of the novel, I was in love. I do not know if it was the mixture of folklore and the oral tradition of storytelling, the rich scenery, or the captivating characters, but I was hooked. Vasya, the last daughter of her mother, enters into her family under sadness and death. However, she is not an ordinary girl. This becomes clear to her father when a mysterious stranger forces him to take a jeweled necklace for her that she must keep with her always. This merely begins the secrets and the events are set in motion. Vasya’s journey into adulthood as well as towards the necklace reveals how truly different and powerful she is. Soon, her village is threatened by forces of religion and the fantastic and it becomes up to Vasya to protect the people she loves from both.
This book mixes superstition, magic, and religion in complex and, sometimes, disturbing ways (more on that later). The whole family of characters were bewitching. They were interesting and all had a unique aspect about them. Following their own paths and making their own choices, the additional characters are complex (ranging from unconventional decisions to explorations of madness) and possess rich histories. The magic and folklore that wrap around all of these characters and that is ingrained in their world is fantastic (in both senses of the word) and has both a danger and innocence. The superstitions and tales play with the concept of folktales as warnings, societal conventions, and genuine accounts of magical beings.
One of the most fascinating and heartbreaking conflicts in the story was between Christianity and the ‘traditional’ ways of worship. The Christianity in this novel strives to abolish the older ways of religion: the leaving of offerings or the relying on household beings for protection. Instead the priest inspires fear and encourages them to pray for their souls and abandon these beings that have protected them for years. Their actions, as they are themselves bewitched by his sermons, result in their own undoing as the darker creatures of the night find their homes unprotected. Yet in the end, we all see what we want to see and their fear makes them violent against their better judgement. This difference in perspective and retaliation separate Vasya from the other characters, like Anna, her stepmother.
This same conflict manifests itself not only in an ideological difference, but also in the conflict of images and values of women. Vasya cannot fit into the traditional model of femininity or female destiny, seeing those futures as a cage and destiny has other plans in store for her. Vasya becomes a victim of this conflict between the old and new because of her magical abilities. She is told time and time again that she is strange, damned, and a witch. Her efforts to protect her village, despite their hatred and fear, only puts her more at danger and at odds with the priest’s teachings. Because of this, Vasya is a strong heroine whose largest flaw seems to be doing exactly what puts her in danger. She is stubborn and impulsive, but she follows her heart and because of that, her actions (while dangerous) are always well intentioned. Vasya struggles with societal acceptance, as well as the embracing of her identity and powers, and illustrates both that sometimes it is never enough and that her world is not ready for change.
So many of the characters desire something: power, love, and freedom and their journey to fulfill their longings occur in vastly different ways. They must navigate their decisions and yearnings with submission, bartering, and fighting, all finding vastly different ends. The ending was satisfying and wrapped up the book in a cyclical way that was both clever and heartwarming. This charming book is a mixture of love and love for your family, for people who will not accept you, for a future you never dreamed of, and for yourself. It is a chronicle of the sacrifices we must make and the promises we keep. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is a lover of strong heroines, magical tales, and folklore. It is the kind of book I would have wished to have read when I was younger.
Cover image from Netgalley.
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