‘Nothing changes, Vasya. Things are, or they are not. Magic is forgetting that something ever was other than as you willed it.’

Every now and again a book finds its way into my hands that I never planned on reading and then it turns out to be a cracking read. This is exactly what happened with me when I picked up Katherine Arden’s fantastic debut The Bear And The Nightingale. 

What drew me to this story was Arden’s knowledge of Russian folklore and her promise to weave this into her own story. I love books like this. Late last year I read a similar book also set in Russia, Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder, and this gave me a taste for more. The deep woods of Russia with their darkness and snow seem to be the perfect setting for stories that thrill and excite.

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The Bear And The Nightingale reads like the stories and fairy tales that Arden based it upon. It is storytelling in its purest form, intended to entertain and interest the reader at all times. It is not necessarily wordy nor does it bombard the reader with plot points and characters. This is what I absolutely adored about this read. Sometimes when reading a good book, the language and quotes can get in the way of a good story. They become an attraction in themselves. Here, Arden has written a story full of imagination and flow that fully holds your attention and keeps you on edge throughout.

The presence of a strong female character surviving in a world of men is also refreshing. Vasilisa Petrova has to be one of the most intriguing characters that I have come across in a long time. Blessed with the powers of a special sight, she can see the old gods or domovoi who protect her and her people. This allows her to understand things about the natural world that her family cannot. Best of all though, Vasya is wild and defiant. She is brave and foolhardy to the point of reckless. She is loved and loathed in equal amounts by her frustrated family. Such characters always make for fascinating reading.

Another major plus point of this novel is that it takes on many forms as it develops. It begins with strong elements of magic realism and really keeps the reader guessing about what exactly is real and what is not. Arden paints a vivid picture with her beautiful yet simple prose. The passing of the seasons and her descriptions of the weather create the perfectly mystical setting for her story.

Arden allows her characters the time and space to grow up without being fussy or overbearing. She does this while introducing new and important characters in a very natural manner. This enables her characters to find their place in her story. A less talented author would have gone for a multiple narrative style and this would have totally changed the tone of this fantastic work altogether. I particularly enjoyed the addition of the young priest Konstantin who really changes the direction of the story.

This change in direction creates a clash between the old beliefs and the new and an ancient evil is given the opportunity to awaken. The novel takes a dark turn at this point and becomes a different read. Like the original Grimm fairy tales that haunted many a fireside two hundred years ago, this story is not all sunshine and snowdrops. The end result in this instance is a truly breathtaking finale that finishes the novel with the perfect crescendo.

With plenty of room left for a proposed sequel, I will definitely keep an eye out for the second instalment. I wouldn’t be surprised if this story became this generations Chronicles of Narnia. A remarkable debut novel.

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Would I recommend this book to a friend?

For the main character alone, I would recommend this book to the young reader. The story is ideal for fans of Narnia, His Dark Materials and, dare I say it, Game of Thrones. Unlike Game of Thrones though, this story is aimed at a much younger audience but retains the same levels of excitement and danger.

Afterthoughts

  • I really do believe that strong female characters are important for young girls. Vasya admirably takes the world on with no fear, is defiant but does the right thing and is a free and wild spirit. What an amazing character.
  • There is great movie/TV series potential in this novel.
  • Peadar O’Guilin’s The Call also takes elements of folklore and works them into a novel with great success. Using material from Irish legends and fairytales, his story is a much darker tale and not for the squeamish.
  • After reading Silence by Shusaku Endo a few months ago, I really enjoyed the addition of Konstantin into this story as yet another example of the Catholic Church entering and trying to change a culture with mixed results.