The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

(No Series)

A young woman’s family is threatened by forces both real and fantastical in this debut novel inspired by Russian fairy tales.

In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, a stranger with piercing blue eyes presents a new father with a gift - a precious jewel on a delicate chain, intended for his young daughter. Uncertain of its meaning, Pytor hides the gift away and Vasya grows up a wild, willful girl, to the chagrin of her family. But when mysterious forces threaten the happiness of their village, Vasya discovers that, armed only with the necklace, she may be the only one who can keep the darkness at bay.

'The Bear and the Nightingale' isn't an easy book to define in terms of genre. It's a beautiful story that weaves fairy tale with old legend and myth while holding a true, authentic feel. For part of it I thought it may be a strange romance in the end but that's not quite right. There's genuine suffering amid the legend (the author made winter frost harsh and cruel but simply awesome in its twisted way), but also a bonding and building of relationships, especially in the family.

I know nothing regarding Russian legend, but this book brought one to life and gave it a magic that's unshakeable. I could picture the winter-filled wilderness clearly whether it focused on the small village, the determined and ignorant father who put duty and familial responsibility before his own happiness, the bold mother who chose to give life even it meant hers may end, and the young and spirited young woman brave and wild enough to hold the power to free everyone.

Usually I get a little lost in la-la land when legends become too complex and fantasy crosses into the surreal, but I was able to hold my own thanks to the kind pacing and the rich writing showcasing how genuine the characters felt. I didn't like everyone of course, as we aren't meant to, especially the paranoid and bitter Anna. (Ugh). Villains have a human face in the force of a preacher who feels he needs to purge the happy lands, but also there are real villains combined with the weather elements. It was an awesome legend and an epic adventure that led my reader's spirit from the armchair to the unknown. Bravo!

As I've said, I kept thinking there would be an eventual love story around the corner, but that wasn't quite right. There were bonds with spirits and the unseen but it wasn't so out there it became detached. Animals play a large bond, especially horses, but it didn't come across hokey nor childish. Pacing was strong enough to support the story's backbone but it never felt rushed - speeding up over a few bumps would have helped it somewhere to inch closer to a five star, but I respect that to speed it up may have sacrificed some of the rich, phantasmagorical vibe.

Vasya bugged me at times with how willing she was to face sacrifice even when people didn't deserve it, but she chose the right road in the end. The Winter's King white frost eyes made a presence and stole every scene he graced. The ignorance of the times and the town rang true, especially when demented over a wrong man's religion. And ugh, the way poor women were treated in those times is enough to set any modern day woman's teeth on edge. Breeders be damned.

This is a book that will appeal to almost every form of reader - whether they enjoy fantasy or fairy-tale, childlike curiosity or the grim starkness of life. It holds all that and more. Recommended.

Received from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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