"We who live forever can know no courage, nor do we love enough to give our lives."
The Bear and the Nightingale is the first book in the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden. It blends history and fantasy and is set in medieval Russia during the Mongolian reign. At the heart of this novel is a love of faery tales. But not the simple happy faery sales. It takes those stories and the mythology contained within them, then portrays them in a realistic manner.
The location Arden primarily develops is a village in the northern woods of Rus where the elements cause constant turmoil and terror to the inhabitants. Many spirits from tales reside in this place and help to protect it, or destroy it, depending on their disposition. Most of the villagers are clueless about the presence of these spirits and those that can see them are treated with suspicion and persecution, and are labelled as witches by the fearful. This part of the book was thoroughly enjoyable and it was a fun, unique perspective on the supernatural that I have not encountered before.
"I gave everything for you Vasillisa Petrovna."
"Not everything," said Vasya. "Since clearly your pride is intact, as well as your illusions."
The plot took a slower route throughout this opening to the trilogy and mostly revolves around minor problems until the last phase of the story. The main character encounters a number of challenges, such as the constant problem of battling the expectations of women during this period, which she strongly opposes. A major theme is the change of religion and the conflict between different faiths, both who believe they are right and would resort to violence in order to prove so...
"Sleep is cousin to death, Vasya. And both are mine."
Arden's prose is smooth and can be read in the style of a faery tale. Fluid and light. I found it complemented my reading preferences and, because of its fluidity, I could easily spend long reading sessions without pause.
There is a magic system present throughout the story, but it was not embellished within this instalment. It was something I would have liked to see in a clearer light in this novel, but having read the next two in the series I can see how it was being kept for future plot lines.
"I'd rather my sons living, and my daughters safe, than a chance at glory for unborn descendants."
Arden focused a lot on character building and prioritised it throughout the story. The main character, Vasya, is well-developed and has a depth that I love to read in characters. She is a young child at the beginning of the novel, and the story takes place over a number of years so the reader accompanies her on those pivotal years of her life that will define who she is. As a result I really liked this character and felt a strong attachment to her. But I did not really warm to anyone else. There are many who have positive characteristics, but their negatives often caused me to dislike them. They were all depicted well but I wish I did feel more attached to some.
Overall, The Bear and the Nightingale was a pleasurable read that is the start to a series that I thoroughly enjoyed. If you like mythology, medieval Russia, or a unique take on the supernatural, I recommend this to you.