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There’s A Chill In The Air

Katherine Arden’s new fairy tale, The Bear and the Nightingale, is the perfect story to cozy up with during a cold winter’s night.

There’s A Chill In The Air

BOOK REPORT for The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Cover Story: Montell Jordan
BFF Charm: Yay
Swoonworthy Scale: 3
Talky Talk: Deep as a Snowbank
Bonus Factors: Fairy Tales, Historical Setting, Winter, Family
Anti-Bonus Factors: Religious Zealots, Lack of Women’s Rights
Relationship Status: Fireside Storyteller

Cover Story: Montell Jordan

Is it wrong that I totally judged this book by its cover when I first saw it? Because I did. I saw it, and I wanted it. The colors, the typography, the woods with the cozy little house—it’s all beautiful.

The Deal:

Vasya has grown up hearing the folklore of her people: those magical, strange, and otherworldly parts of life that most people can’t see or even want to acknowledge—except in stories. But Vasya has her wild grandmother’s blood running through her veins, and that gives her a unique ability to see the creatures that keep the hearth warm and keep the horses healthy. Out in the remote forests of Rus’, Vasya’s family spends much of their time just trying to survive the cold, harsh winters, but things begin to change when Vasya’s father brings home a new stepmother and a priest from Moscow. Suddenly life becomes a battle of old versus new, magic versus religion, and Vasya is somehow right smack in the middle of it.

BFF Charm: Yay

Vasya grows up wilder than her siblings, thanks to her lack of a mother, and would prefer to be out wandering the forest than doing needlework. Despite being a bit willful, she fiercely loves her family and land, and wants to see them thrive. She’s a modern girl stuck in a backwards-thinking time period, and I loved her for it (don’t get me wrong; she doesn't feel anachronistic, she just knows what she wants). And who doesn’t want a friend who can speak to magical creatures? Sure, it might get boring at times watching her have one-sided conversations, but I think the pros would outweigh the cons. 

Swoonworthy Scale: 3

In Rus’, women have two options: get married and have children to perpetuate their husband’s line, or join a convent. This kind of cuts through a lot of romanticism, since these decisions aren’t based on feelings, but prospects. The book spans more than a decade of Vasya’s life, so for much of it, she’s not even contemplating boys. There are a few men who have, shall we say, taken an interest in her, but for the most part the swoon is very subtle.

Talky Talk: Deep as a Snowbank

Katherine Arden’s writing feels lush and timeless. From the start, this book cast a spell over me, sweeping me up into this family surrounded by nothing but cold and forest and their troubles. I loved the dreamlike quality of the writing, the way I could feel the chill and the snow piling up outside the door. This book strongly reminded me of Uprooted by Noami Novik in tone, which, spoiler alert, I loved. This will not be my last book from Ms. Arden. 

Bonus Factor: Fairy Tales

I love a good fairy tale retelling, but I also love an original fairy tale. The story had all the makings of one: magic, a strong heroine, mystical creatures, antagonists, and danger.  

Bonus Factor: Historical Settings

The novel is set in the real time period of 13th century Russia, before it was “Russia”, though obviously there are some fantastical elements that come into play. I think it’s safe to say I’ve never read a book with this setting before, and I loved the fresh perspective. Because it’s so long ago, it felt like a new world (Arden could’ve easily said this was a made-up country and I would’ve believed it), but I liked the inclusion of real-life historical figures and places like Moscow. From the author’s note it sounds like Arden has a lot of passion for Russia and its history, and I appreciate seeing people use their interests to their advantage. 

Bonus Factor: Winter

I saved this book to read over Winter Break, since from the description it felt like perfect “curl up under a blanket at night with some tea while the snow falls outside the window” novel. It totally was, but I live in Florida, so there was no snow, plus December was unseasonably warm with highs in the eighties, so blankets weren’t really necessary. But I turned down the AC and drank tea anyway, and I can confirm that this book’s descriptions of the freezing winters and snowstorms will make you feel like you should be sitting by the fire.

Bonus Factor: Family

Vasya’s mother died in childbirth, but she left behind five children and a good, upstanding husband. Readers watch Vasya as she grows up the youngest of her siblings, so in the beginning we get a lot of emphasis on her father and brothers’ perspectives. They are all varied in personality and love their sister despite her strange tendencies, and look out for each other. That focus on this being a family saga reminded me a little of the Stark family from Game of Thrones (though with a lot less murder and nudity). 

Anti-Bonus Factor: Religious Zealots

Konstantin is a Christian priest from Moscow who gets sent to Vasya’s family as a sort of punishment, but he quickly turns that frown upside down when he realizes he’s got a town full of heathens he can convert away from their silly ways, like leaving milk out for the creature who mends their clothing. The struggle between the old religion and new religion was fascinating and sickening to read about. Obviously there are wonderful religious figures who do much good in the world, but on the flip side, there are always those who choose to use fear and shame to rule their flock.

Anti-Bonus Factor: Lack of Women’s Rights

I already touched on this little, but the lack of options for women was so frustrating, and made me so grateful to live in our current day and age despite some of our continued problems. Women had no rights in 13th century Russia, and were sold like cattle into marriage to whomever wanted it. Even good men like Vasya’s father, Pyotr, had some stupid, misogynistic ideas because of how he was raised. Vasya struggles against this, but we also find a cautionary tale in Anna, her stepmother, who was a fearful and misguided teenager that grew hard and mean because of a lack of options and the support she deserved.

Casting Call:

Young Mila Kunis as Vasya

Vasya has black-red hair and unsettling, bright green eyes like her grandmother. Mila may be Ukrainian, not Russian, but she’s got piercing eyes (though she’d need green contacts), and with her face, you can understand why some people can become obsessed with her.

Relationship Status: Fireside Storyteller

You can tell me stories for as long as you want, Book. I’ll sit next to you by the fire any time and let you lull me to great dreams with your fantastical yarns.

FTC Full Disclosure: I received my free review copy from Del Ray. I received neither money nor peanut butter cups in exchange for this review. The Bear and the Nightingale is available now.

Stephanie Johnston's photo About the Author: Stephanie is an avid reader who moonlights as a college Educational Advisor. Though she now calls Orlando home, she grew up all over the U.S. Aside from her obsession with YA books and book-related activities, Stephanie loves watching way too much television, reading organizational/DIY blogs, planning awesome parties, Halloween decorating, and playing live-action escape games.