Book Review: The Bear & The Nightingale by Katherine Arden

What’s it about?

In a village in the north of Russia, on the edge of the wilderness, stories of frost demons and household sprites are told around the fire to the children of the family. However, change is coming and the world is turning. For the young Vasya, these stories are more than just folklore and it is up to her to protect her home and hearth against those who would harm it.

My thoughts

I finished this book about 2 months ago and it is still lodged somewhere beneath my breastbone. The writing is so vivid that I could practically feel the ice wind on my cheeks and feel the stirrings of the frost demon beneath my feet. As you may have guessed, my feelings are very positive towards this book.

I should pause here and own up to a fondness for Russian literature and culture (pre-Revolution). Since my grandma showed 10 year old me the 1972 BBC adaptation of War and Peace on library-borrowed VHS, I’ve loved it all. Indeed, if I were to be on Desert Island Discs, I would take W&P; it has everything you need.

Anyway, Arden shows an impressive knowledge of Russian folklore and history that forms the base of the story. But it how she brings these bare bones to life in a vivid evocation of feudal Russia (before Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, I think) that really makes the story sing. Every character has their own foibles and depths, depicted with skill in a few neat words.

The words themselves are almost poetic in their nature. The story is largely set on the edge of a forest, and the way this forest is put on paper is so beautiful. The smell of the leaves as autumn turns, the cold cleanliness of the snow, the bulk and presence of the trees are so powerful that I wasn’t in central Munich* anymore , I was in Siberia following Vasya through the wood. I didn’t want it to end.

Would I recommend it?

Yes. Wholeheartedly. Go and get it now. I’ve already given my copy away but I think it might be repurchased.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden is published by Penguin, priced £7.99

*I just happened to be in Munich while reading this book.

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