Review: The Bear and the Nightingale

I was recommended Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale by someone (Mel)  who shares many of my reading preferences.

We want kickass women & non-binary characters who take no shit! We want them in a fantasy setting that’ll leave us hungover by its splendiferous elegance. We want fantasy leaning into the fairy tale side of things, we want well thought-out lore that doesn’t bash you over the head.

The Bear and the Nightingale doesn’t have as big of a following as the last few books I’ve reviewed, and that’s astonishing because it’s a stunner of a book. Super worth reading. So besides the summary of the first couple chapters in the next paragraph, I’m keeping things spoiler-free. Because if Slavic folklore fantasy is even slightly your jam, you should go read this book too.

The first three chapters (30 odd pages) of this story didn’t grab me. We learn about the protagonist, Vasya, born to a daughter of a powerful witch. The witch’s daughter insists on having Vasya because Vasya will inherit those powers, dies in childbirth, and we fast forward instantly to Vasya being a troublemaker of a kid. I’m wary of anything too trite and flowery, and a little girl who steals cakes and ignores her chores to run off into the forest and have chance encounters with mythical men--well, the path is well tread.

I didn’t love this extended exposition. The characters all felt slippery--there’s a nurse telling a story to a group of kids--but wait, none of these people are the protagonist? Oh, here comes this witchy pregnant woman, she’s dark and mysterious, she’s probably...nope--she’s dead.

By the time we get to the protagonist, I’m suspicious of her weird-little-forest-girl vibe and am concerned that she’s just going to be a flat little adventurer.

But!! Once I ‘got’ the book, it blew me away.

One of the great strengths of the book is how it takes mythological tropes--the evil stepmother, the two sons who hold different virtues--and gently presses on them. Arden doesn’t seek to invert or problematize them. What she does is more complicated. She injects humanity we can understand into them, in turn bringing the myths further to life.

What drives the evil step mother to be wicked? In this case, she’s evil because she has visions, visions that indicate power and connection to the natural world but visions that she fears. And it’s her fear of evil, her fear that she’s evil because of her visions, which drives her to evil deeds.

Arden does this with elegance and subtlety that’s frequently lacking in the genre. She’s not wrapping contemporary pop-feminist observations in a fantasy dough like a disappointing crepe. There’s no moment where Roxane Gay or Rebecca Solnit (or any other easy-to-read feminist critic) suddenly shows up in a petticoat to soliloquize about the state of women’s rights. Like, Arden’s over here working with some juicy ‘tragedy of fate’ shit. She doesn’t have time for ham handed cultural criticism.

Another strength of the story: the multiple layers of politics, such that the plot is propelled forward by the forces of men in the Kremlin as much as it is by spirits and magic blood. The events that happen in the desolate forest of Vasya’s home don’t occur in a vacuum. This sets Arden up for a sequel in a believable world.

So, basically, you should read this book. Read it for the world, the characters in it, the well-paced action sequences and the solemn reflections on community. And read it for Vasya, who brings a lot more to the weird-little-forest-girl trope than I ever could have imagined. There’s delicious fantasy that makes your imagination feel all lit up, there’s garbage fantasy that nobody should have to read, there’s fluffy fantasy you enjoy on vacation, and then there’s seriously god damn good fantasy written by people who are damn serious about writing. This is the latter. Arden’s not fucking around.

The icing on the cake is that there are two more books in this series, and they’ve already been published. Isn’t it great to come late to marvelous things?

Tagged with Book Review

Posted May 21, 2019