Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale – Katherine Arden (Del Rey, 2016)

Someone recommended this book to me and I was drawn in by the lovely cover and was excited to read this story based on Russian myth and lore. While it didn’t match my high expectations, it was a readable and enjoyable story and a twist on a fairy tale that might not be familiar to North American audiences.

This is medieval Russia – cold and barren, Christian but still steeped in the superstitious lore of tradition. Vasilisa is the youngest daughter of a wealthy family, the child predicted to bear the unique talents of her mysterious grandmother. She is a wild young girl, preferring to be outdoors, seeing things that others don’t. The family and the peasants under them honour the old mythical creatures and the stories that are told of them and so are protected from the harsh winter and nature of the world around them.

All of this changes when Vasilisa’s father re-marries. Her stepmother is deeply religious and forbids the old ways and the region quickly falls into chaos, death, and starvation without the protections of the old household gods. It is up to Vasilisa to defend both the mythical tbeings and her family as an even greater threat lurks closer.

Is this book great literature? No. But it’s fun and fantastical and the peek at Russian mythology made for an interesting read. It is the first book in a trilogy but I can’t say I have much desire to continue on with the other books. To be honest, that’s a point in the novel’s favour for me because it does have its own complete ending and wraps up the story plot while still keeping room for the next book. I’m happy to enjoy it on its own but if this book truly grabs you, there is room for more of Vasilisa’s adventures.


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