Author: Katherine Arden
Narrator: Kathleen Gati
BECHDEL TEST: Uncertain, didn’t keep track.
Content Warnings: Body horror, child marriage, death in childbirth, sexual assault, misogyny, ableism and ableist language, adult-minor relationships, child abuse, suicide, discussion of abortion, grief and loss, death, graphic animal death and hunting, war themes, mentioned rape and marital rape, implied paedophilia, self-harm
The Bear and The Nightingale is one of those books that just seems to be everywhere around the blogosphere, and once you’ve seen something praised enough times, you can’t help but by intrigued. So I picked up the audiobook last month, wanting to know what all the fuss was about. Sadly the hype didn’t ring true for me, I found it slow paced, confusing and ultimately quite dull. Here is a short synopsis of the book:
At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.
After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.
And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.
As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.
So I’ll start with my biggest problem with this book, which is in a surprise to no one was our old friend: PACING. This book is next level SLOW, it takes a good 70% of the book to actually get to the plot described in the synopsis, and the rest of it is just backstory for Vasilisa and her family, most of which has hardly any bearing on the main plot, it was only really in the third part of the book where things started moving, by which point you’ve invested a good nine or so hours into the book!
In addition to it being incredibly slow, there’s really not much plot at all. I could hardly tell you what actually happened in this book because so little did and what did happen was incredibly confusing and difficult to follow. I know lots of people like the all vibes, no plot type books, but I’m not one of them!
Having said that, the wintery atmosphere is perfectly done and was probably the best thing about this book.
I didn’t much like the narrator, her accents for the different characters were too similar so it was hard to tell who was speaking at what point. I also found her delivery kind of dry, it all felt very serious and stilted. That was a problem throughout the whole book really, everything and everyone was so serious, it felt like there was no life or colour in the story.
The characters were all very flat and not that fleshed out, even Vasya who was supposedly the main character. She has serious “not like other girls” energy, as if riding horses and liking the outdoors somehow made her a special kind of woman! The whole “one special girl” and all other women are bad for following societal norms is incredibly tired. It also felt like there were way too many of them and most of them were only given a passing mention and then dropped out of the story. I would have rather had fewer, more fully developed characters.
It didn’t help that all the characters had about 10,000 names, their full name, a shortened version and then a ridiculous number of other nicknames. It was hard enough to keep track of who was who in the first place, let alone when you brought in all of the other names.
It was also seriously overwritten, too many extraneous details that weren’t necessary for the story and though many people love extremely descriptive writing, I am not one of them and felt a little overloaded on description. It was also just generally too wordy for my liking. The switching of perspective happened too often as well, sometimes several times within the same paragraph, which contributed to the story being hard to follow.
I was kind of expecting more from the fantasy elements, given that it’s supposed to be a fantasy book, it felt more like a historical with a couple of fantastical elements that a pure fantasy novel. All she seemed to do was cram a load of creatures from folklore in there with little explanation as to what they were, and give Vasya magical powers that aren’t really explained. I think it would have been better if Arden had fully developed one or two of the folkloric creatures and given more explanation as to how Vasya, and her mother before her had witch powers. I would have liked the Frost demon to be more involved in the plot too, given how heavily he features in the blurb.
I also wasn’t keen on the focus on religion, this may be a personal thing because I’m not religious, but I wasn’t expecting how densely focused on religion this would be (which I probably should have based on the blurb, but this just shows how much I read the blurb before I read).
The unrelenting misogyny was kind of exhausting. We get it, it’s 14th century (rough guess, no actual time was established) Russia, but I just got so tired of the derogatory comments about women and how desperate everyone was to marry Vasya off at the age of 14 (again guess, her actual age is a little fuzzy). I’m just really tired of all these fantasy worlds where everything must be awful for women, it’s a world where you can have frost demons, we can have things being not completely terrible for women, it’s not much of a stretch!
On that point, I wanted to talk about Anna Ivanova in more detail because she really gets the short end of the stick. She’s a child bride, forced into a marriage with Pyotr and is then repeatedly raped by her husband and there’s no comment on it in the narrative at all? NAH. Not here for this at all. She’s also demonised for her mental illness and that definitely didn’t sit right with me. Basically, the poor women is made out to be the villain of the story because she uses religion to deal with her trauma, and it just all felt very off to me.
We also fall into the incredibly annoying trap with Vasya not really having any female friends, & all the women in the book being treated as lesser than Vasya because they don’t go against the grain of their society, and it just seemed like the author was trying to go for a feminist message with Vasya but completely failed because her treatment of all the women in the book was terrible.
Some of the chapters were definitely overly long, and this did not help with the book’s pacing issues.
The implication that the priest, Konstantin was sexually interested in Vasya was incredibly uncomfortable & also a bit of a gross and tired stereotype to use. Between him and Anna Ivanova and Pyotr, there were a few too many age gap relationships/implied interest for my liking.
There was way too much prose and not enough dialogue, which I think contributed to the book feeling longer than it was, because there were so many really dense passages of prose with no breaks.
I’m still not a massive fan of the third person omniscient perspective that was utilised here, I definitely feel like it kept you at a distance from the characters and contributed to them feeling flat.
I felt like the author expected you to know as much about Russian folklore as she did, which didn’t really work, because I was just left confused as to what was happening.
The ending felt super rushed and I didn’t like that the story didn’t have a satisfying conclusion, I get that the book has sequels, but it should still feel like it works as a self-contained story and it just doesn’t.
Overall, this book just wasn’t for me. It was badly paced, the characters felt flat, the plot was thin and confusing and the messages around women just weren’t it. I feel like this book could have had potential as the setting was so well done, and the idea was good, it was just poorly executed. I don’t think I’ll be reading the sequels as I can’t slog through another 800 pages over two books of all vibes, no plot.
My Rating: 2/5
My next review will be of Dangerous Remedy by Kat Dunn, my final October audiobook. I’m still stuck on four books left to review, as I finished I Am Malala this week, but at least the review backlog isn’t getting any bigger!