I had never heard of The Bear and the Nightingale book series, or of Katherine Arden. It was a mere chance that I came across the book at all at my local library. Our librarian had recently read the book in the local city book club, and decided to buy the series for the library.
I found the book sitting on the shelf in the “new” section, and liking the cover art, decided to give it a try.
As for me, I am a reader of wide tastes. I can read almost anything, fiction to non-fiction, history, crime, DIY, sci-fi, space opera, fantasy, you name it.
My favorite books always have the following: a strong female character, quite a bit of adventure, good writing, and some unexpected twists.
For these reasons, given what the back cover told me, The Bear and the Nightingale was a book I figured I would enjoy. But I didn’t expect to enjoy it quite so much.
The Bear and the Nightingale Summary
I don’t want to spoil the book. But here’s a quick summary of the back story. The three book series follows the rise of a young girl, from her perilous birth on a wintry night to her maturity and acceptance of her own natural gifts and powers.
The book is set in a time long past, in the area of the world we know as Eastern Europe/Western Russia, but well before any such places exist as we know them now. The main character (Vasya) is born with the power of her grandmother (of Baby Yaga’s line) to see and talk to (and influence) the mythological creatures of the well-known local fairy tales.
For Vasya, the village of her birth is a difficult place. She is a headstrong, free spirited girl, a person ready for challenges and adventure in the world, in a time when a women’s lot in life was to get married, care for the home, have children, act modestly, and live quietly. She struggles with women’s tasks, and prefers spending time with the horses to mending and washing.
Vasya is unusual, and ugly. The people in the village fear her, and want her gone.
While there are plenty of small conflicts for Vasya, the primary conflict in the book (for Vasya, and for the other main characters) is centered around the rise of Christianity in the region to replace the old ways of the world. As the world comes to know of the new “God” and worship as directed by the church, the lands are plunged into danger as a result of the loss of the old faith.
Vasya is barely a woman before she is pushed to the forefront of this battle between the old ways and new, good and evil, fire and snow.
A lot of people I have seen online in reviews complain that the plot in this first book is not that strong. I admit, while there is plenty happening in the book, it isn’t a difficult or complex plot. It is a simple book.
The primary happenings in the book are the clashes, conflicts, meetings, connections between the various characters, and the outcome and fallout from each.
I wasn’t bothered by the pacing of the book or by the plot. I found the book and the characters to be interesting enough that I didn’t need more. Frankly, if there had been more plot, more adventures, more of everything, the first book would have been epic and overwhelming.
Others complain about the lack of a strong “romantic relationship” element in the book. Throughout most of this first book in the series, the main character is still a young girl, and it doesn’t make any sense for her to think of love or men or marriage, which she really isn’t that interested in anyway.
I frankly find it refreshing that the plot of the story doesn’t revolve around whether two characters are going to end up together, so that didn’t bother me at all.
Overall, for a debut novel, I thought this was a great first undertaking.
Other Delights (Russian/Slavic History/Folklore)
One of the things I loved about this book is that it introduced me to the world of Russian folklore. I had heard of Baba Yaga before, but I’ve never heard of the Domovoy, Rusalka, Leshy, the winter demon Morozko, Meved, Kaschei the Deathless (later), and more. I’d never heard of the fairy tale characters Ivan Tsarevich, Koschei, Ivan the Fool, Yelena the Beautiful, Marya Morevna, and more.
Once I finished the series, I went in search of the fairy tales separate and apart from the novels, and read them with my kids. It was a nice inspiration and a push into an area of writing and folklore from a different part of the world that I’d never known, and doubted that my kids would ever learn about in school, not unless they took something in college.
What age is The Bear and the Nightingale appropriate for?
There are definitely some adult themes in this first book in the novel, though there is not anything gratuitous. If anything, if the book were read by a naive teenager, I’m guessing some of the language about the looks exchanged between characters or the motivations of some of the male characters would go over his/her head.
There is a frequent discussion of the safety of young women in the lands, and the issue of rape does come up, though it isn’t a part of this story.
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My coworker totally understands my reading. 🎄🎁📚😂. Thanks again @biblioholicbeth mini art print inspired by the book Bear & the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. It’s a beautiful trilogy rich in Russian folklore. Side note: I may have fangirled a bit when I met Katherine at a book event one year. 😂🤦🏻♀️😂 #GOREADIT #bearandthenightingale #katherinearden #bookstagram #booksbooksbooks #books4life
There are some scary/suspenseful parts in the book (like when the characters are afraid of creatures roaming the night), and a few bloody scenes (animals getting killed, or people in the village dying). But overall, in my opinion as someone who reads books meant for older kids to the younger ones, it is not any bloodier (and perhaps less so) than Tui T. Sutherland Wings of Fire series, which I thought could be read by kids as young as 8-10.
There are no “relations” amongst the characters in the book described, though it does happen briefly in the third novel. This may be a deal breaker for some families who are looking for literature for their kids but don’t want them to be reading about developing relationships (especially relationships out of wedlock).
If you have a mature kid aged 11-13, I wouldn’t have a problem handing this book to her. I say “her” because I feel like a young woman is more likely to appreciate and engage with the text as it discusses a lot of women’s issues, though in the context of pre-Russian times. Boys might be into it too, just because there is so much action.
Other Books in The Winternight Trilogy
There are three books in the Winternight Trilogy:
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Ive been meaning to write about yet another fantasy series which I absolutely loved this year. A fantasy world set in the edge of wintery Russia, where history and myths are intermingled and knit together, there exists a strong female protagonist. I'm a huge fan of vasya, her bravery and her determination to shatter the myths the world around her has pushed her in. Winter night trilogy shows you the life during mediaeval Russia, the pagan gods, their traditions , the chyetri, Rich Russian history and culture and the world Arden has created with frost demons, witches, immortal horses and bears. . . . This was my very first experience of Russian folklore,and my my, i am amazed by it. The literary goosebumps Arden gives you throughout the book, the stalwart heroine and the third book, where she has drawn inspiration from actual Russian history, has caught me off guard. . . . The third and series finale is my favourite book, vasya reaches her full potential and the characterisation is really on full swing . If you've read this series, tell me your favourite characters, mine are vasya, Solovey and morozko. If you haven't read, do pick it up right away. I always do a thematic reading, I read the full series last winter ! .. Do you pick themes for reading ? If yes, what books you're planning to read this winter ❄️ #bookstagram #books #ilovebooks #novel #paperback #bookalicious #bookworm #bookish #bookaholic #bibliophilic #bibliophile #mystery #bookloverproblems #booklover #bookstack #loveforbooks #folklore #winternighttrilogy #readersofig #readers #bdloves #katherinearden #bearandthenightingale #girlinthetower #winterofthewitch #fantasy #russia #fantasyseries #winter #winterreading
Either I’ve been reading a lot of drivel lately, or this was a pretty good book. I’m the kind of person who reads great books over and over again. Not necessarily right away, but again and again over time.
I always find details that I missed before, or make new connections.
In the case of this series, I actually got to the end of book three and turned around and started the series again from book one, and got so much more out of it, knowing how the series ended.
Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments section below.
Emily Anderson is a mother of three children, all under the age of 10. Located in the Pacific Northwest of the US, Emily is a full-time mom and part-time blogger, jumping in front of the computer screen when the kids are occupied or sleeping. She started this blog in April of 2019 and is proud that the blog is now paying for itself. If you want to know about her journey as a blogger, check out out her personal digital journal or her post about failing her way to blogging success.