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Bear and the Nightingale: A Charming Fantasy Based in Russian Folklore

Updated on December 29, 2018

Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden.

So I have been reading a lot of fantasies lately and found truly unique and imaginative tales are hard to find. Dragons and knights in shining armor had worn out their welcome long ago and so have children attending some sort of magical school. I’m always been looking for something new. And then I found this book that sounded different. It’s a fantasy steeped in Russian folklore called The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden.

So what is it about? It follows Vasya as she grows up in a somewhat noble family the forest villages of Russia. She does not conform to norms and is considered a wild girl and all around a Tomboy. And she can see creatures no one else can. Her mother died giving birth to her, so after years of resentment her father decided to make plans to accommodate and take care of his very a large family. He goes to Moscow to speak to the prince. He has an arranged marriage to a new wife and has his three oldest children eventually married off. Her step mother is cruel, thinking her a witch and often beating her for speaking of or to the various wood spirits that she has made friends with. But the story really begins when a magnificent priest moves to town. He has a magnificent gold voice and convinces them all to only worship the Christian god and tells the town the wood spirits that they left offerings for their whole lives are demons that need to purged from the world. Vasya is in shock by what she sees happening to her home. The people she knew her whole life are changing into terrible people. The old spirits are beginning to die along with the crops and with further hardships resulting from abandoning the wood spirits, the town is struggling to survive. Vasya can’t let the spirits die. If she does, an ancient god will wreak havoc on all of them. So as the world all grows against her, she does all that she can to make things right.

The good? This is a very unique book. The setting alone is something I haven’t seen before in a book. Medieval Russia is strange, cruel, yet beautiful setting and their folklore is intriguing. This book is also unpredictable. It’s hard to tell where this is going. The twists and turns are wonderful surprises. The character of Vasya is wonderful too. She strong and likable. She is also a good view point for the heavy themes sexism this book wears on its sleep. It is almost a secondary plot line where Vasya is told to be she will be married and have children and is constantly trying to be molded into a tradition ideal woman throughout the story. And though, this has now become a cliché staple of almost all young adult books with a girl lead nowadays, this is handled perfectly and doesn’t seem to be there just because the author had a statement to make. It organically feels like part of the world.

The bad? Though enjoyable from beginning to end, half of the book is about Vasya growing up and hardly has any fantasy elements at all. So if you looking for something magical, it’s a while before the woods spirits show up.

Overall, this is a charming wonderful fantasy. The characters are great. The story is unique and imaginative. It’s just a great journey to go on. It’s on par with Harry Potter and the His Dark Material Trilogy. So it’s a must read.

4 smoothies out of Four.

Overall Rating: A Charming Fantasy Based in Russian Folklore

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