A Russian fairy tale vividly brought to life like an intimate historical fiction, Katherine Arden’s first installment of her Winternight Trilogy, The Bear and the Nightingale appeals to a broad swath of readers.
More fairy tale than High Fantasy, Arden doesn’t lean on huge feats of world building or sword clanging adventures. Instead, Bear is an almost whimsical portrait of a rural Russian village and their kindly Lord’s family. Both readers who love to learn about far away places and the distant past and those who enjoy a spark of magic in their stories will find something to enjoy. Arden mixes moments of stark tragedy with the lightest touches of romance to create a melodic lexicon unique to her story. The first book in a trilogy, Bear does manage to stand alone with a satisfying story arc and conclusion, but just barely. The novel definitely operates as the setup for a larger narrative, which I look forward to reading.
Themes of gender roles, tradition, new vs. old, religion, and belonging are central in The Bear and the Nightingale. It features a cast of dynamic female characters ranging from the protagonist – the Lord’s gifted young daughter Vasilisa – to the zealous wicked stepmother. Arden’s thorough research into Russian folklore and medieval political history paired with overt universal themes make Bear a good choice for book club discussions.
I recommend The Bear and the Nightingale for readers looking for a series in which they can get lost, lovers of magic and fantasy, and historical fiction readers who are looking for something a little different.
Note: cover photo is from The Girl with the Book Addiction.