In the past few years I’ve moved more to reading more comic books than novels. When I do read a book, it happens to be something classic I’ve read at least once before. This has to do with a general feeling that I’ve lost touch with my favorite genres (sci-fi/fantasy) and I no longer recognize names of up-and-coming authors. The only way to remedy this is to read more, so I was happy to come across a recommendation for The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden.
Full disclosure: the recommendation came from a Verge article titled “8 Stories to Read while you wait for the next season of American Gods. That should give you an inkling as to the subject matter of the book — fantasy and myth! The Bear and the Nightingale follows Vasilia, a Russian girl, through childhood and early adulthood as she navigates between the living fairy tales in only she can see and the Christianity that dominates her village. I’m going to do my best to stay away from spoilers in this review, so I’m going to speak more generally about some of the aspects I appreciated.
Vasilia and Gender
First and foremost, I love how Arden handles Vasilia as a female protagonist throughout the book (and gender in general). There were a few times in the book where Vasilia encounters situations that sent alarm bells ringing in my head. However, each time I thought “There’s no way the author is going to avoid a shitty gender stereotype here” Arden either did a complete 180 degree turn, or handled it with deft nuance.
For example, there is a male character who becomes obsessed with Vasilia throughout the book. I immediately expected this man to turn reprehensible in his pursuits of Vasilia. Let’s face it, my mind went to “worst case scenario” and I was expecting a poorly handled rape scene. This does not happen! Instead, what Arden depicts is a nuanced view of how this character navigates multiple passions (his passion for Vasilia being only one of many). Despite this man’s flaws (which are are many) I – and Vasilia – never see him as truly reprehensible through Arden’s nuanced handling. He’s allowed to be a three dimensional character, just as Vasilia is. Because feminism means equality for all sexes and genders 🙂
Gender wasn’t prevalently mentioned throughout the book, but Arden does give us a vivid look at gender roles in this quasi-historical Russian setting. Through the trajectory of Vasilia’s sisters, we see that women are expected to either marry and bare heirs, or join convents. Vasilia isn’t allowed to own knives, learn to ride horses properly, and her family wishes she would spend less time covered in mud.
However, while finding her own route path, Vasilia never criticizes her sisters or the women in her village for wanting either of those options. She is simply self-aware enough to realize that those options aren’t for her, and proceeds accordingly. This struck me quite wonderful, since this is something mainstream feminism has struggled with. Occasionally when promoting “what a feminist is” we vilify women who don’t fit our own narrow definitions. While Vasilia and the women in Bear and the Nightingale have never heard of feminism, Vasilia’s attitude towards herself and other women is far healthier than what I sometimes see.
On a completely different track, my second favorite aspect of the novel were the fairy tale creatures and old gods. I’ve played so many games like Pokemon and Yo-Kai Watch, I just can’t help but love a story that surrounds a growing girl with magical creatures. We don’t meet as broad of a range of Russian creatures as I would have liked (MOAR CREATURES) but that is because I so fully enjoyed each creature that did make an appearance. Except for the Upyrs. Russian vampires scare the heck out of me.
Beyond the lower-level creatures, there are also two “old gods” tossing about their narrative weight. They’re referred to by many different names, but I’m going to reference them as the “Bear” and the “Nightingale”. It is their ongoing struggle that informs many of the major plot points of the book, though the details dribble through much of the novel until we near the denouement. Like Czernobog and Bielebog from American Gods, the Bear and the Nightingale share a dualistic relationship that slowly untangles over the course of the novel.
And it is a true untangling, as we are introduced to the Nightingale through a nursemaid’s evening storytelling. With an early, fairy tale introduction, it is up to the reader (and Vasilia at times) to navigate fact and fiction in the real of northern Rus’. That may just be one of my favorite things about fictionalized mythology characters – hearing their own take on the stories told about them. Not that the Nightingale or the Bear are very verbose on the topics of themselves.
I’m incredibly happy I took a chance on a random book from a random web article. I tore through this book in an evening. That isn’t necessarily surprising for me, but it is still an indicator of how engaging The Bear and the Nightingale was. The prose is lush and immersive, the family narrative is deftly layered to create a rich tapestry, and the world intoxicating. With this debut novel, Katherine Arden completely satisfied my Russian fairy tale cravings while telling a delightful story to boot.