The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale is a powerful, evocative tale written in the style of old Russian fairy tales with an active narrator, and an oddly close and personal omniscient point of view. The voice carries with it a storyteller’s cadence, mixing telling with experiencing such that the reader is drawn in instead of pushed away until I could feel the sharp bite of cold and the burn of heat. Proof of the book’s success in that is how I accidentally started this novel out of order so had to stop, but when I picked it up again almost three months later, I started right where I’d stopped and what I already knew rose up to inform what I read next.

This is the story of a girl with an unusual bloodline who can see and talk to the old folk when most continue the tributes out of tradition and habit more than true belief. She’s a wild thing, truly unsuited for a female role, who spends her free time running in the forest, returning with all manner of berries and herbs to appease the nurse who raised her when her mother died in childbirth.

At the same time, this is about the clash of old beliefs with new, and the costs of rejecting old truths. When the family priest is replaced by an Orthodox fanatic, he considers the old ways a path to the devil, simultaneously saying God created all things while rejecting those beings created of magic, faith, and tributes to keep the village safe. His rejection is so complete, and his voice so compelling, he convinces everyone to deny what he does not understand and betray truths as a devil’s lie.

You see their world through the eyes of many characters, rife with the little details that make their lives solid and concrete, like using ice blocks for windows in the winter so the light comes in but the cold does not. At the same time, you meet the old creatures from the start, and a reader would have to work hard to believe them nothing more than childhood imagination.

The narrative offers a fascinating look into both how people can be sheep when driven by a hypnotic orator and how blind people can be to the clear line between this rejection and their sufferings. As in most fairy tales, rejection of tradition, of the balance between the fey world and our own, has serious consequences, and the suffering falls on those who were swayed by an evocative voice most of all.

In case it isn’t clear by now, I loved this story with its powerful and complex nature. It contains a bevy of fascinating characters, many not human, and an exploration of the lines between good and evil as well as the slippery slope between saintly and corrupted. There are none so blind as refuse to see, and the priest is blinded by his sins of pride and arrogance, too full of himself to recognize what he’s doing and punishing others for his own weaknesses.

If you like fairy tales but want a full and complete story, this book is for you. The style is traditional rather than modern, but there’s something about the cadence that will throw you into the darkened woods and make you feel the struggle between a new world and the old one.

P.S. I received this novel from the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.

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