The Bear and the Nightingale, the first installment of Katherine Arden‘s Winternight Trilogy, was a fantasy novel brimming with atmospheric detail, complex characters, and even magic.
Our main character, Vasya (full name: Vasilisa), a girl who is marked by how different she is than the rest of her family and the other members of the tight-knit village, and proves to be strong-willed and powerful. Vasya is one of the best female literary characters I have come across and reminded me a bit of the Disney character Merida from the movie Brave. She has a heart for adventure and a wish to remain untamed, which proves extremely problematic in a time where women are forced to confine to strict gender roles. To make matters even more complicated for this headstrong heroine, she is deeply rooted in magic (passed on from her mysterious grandmother who was rumored to be a witch) and can communicate with spirits. In a town that soon becomes plunged into paranoia and religious fanaticism, dabbling in ‘witchcraft’ can prove dangerous.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the magic featured in this novel never seemed silly. That is my main complaint with fantasy stories – that the fantasy element is so overdone and glamorized that it’s almost embarrassing. The magic intertwined with the story masterfully, and it was compelling to see how the old pagan beliefs tied with the spirits were competing with the Christian religion brought by a terrifying priest named Konstantin, who acts as one of the major antagonists of the story. The various spirits that Vasya communicates with all seem to serve a refreshingly practical purpose, though the frost demon and winter-king Morozko acts as the most mystical and otherworldy of all. This book is infused with interesting (and, it can be assumed, meticulously researched) Russian mythology and folklore that provides the story great depth, another aspect I find commonly missing from other fantasy novels.
It also should be noted that the atmospheric detail captured in this novel was breathtaking. The isolated, freezing little village up in the northern part of medieval Russia where Vasya and her family reside is painted vividly, allowing the reader to really experience what life is like when one is cut off from the rest of civilization. From Vaysa’s cozy home heated by a giant oven to the icy, thick forests transported straight from a fairytale, Arden did a fantastic job of creating a backdrop filled with wonder, suspense, and even dread.
Filled with a great cast of strong characters that all contribute to the story in a meaningful way, a magical infusion of folklore, a stunning setting, and even a good deal of action, this was an imaginative and incredible read. As soon as I read the final page of this book, I immediately looked up to see if the next installment was out (it is) and immediately placed a hold on it at my local library. I am looking forward immensely to witnessing how Vasya’s adventure continues in The Girl in the Tower.