Winter Reading: The Bear and The Nightingale

Winter Reading: The Bear and The Nightingale

There are books that seem to be made for reading in a certain weather or place. Eve Babitz is summer reading while Doctor Zhivago is winter, Zadie Smith is London and Crazy Rich Asians is Singapore. It is of course not necessary nor always possible to match the books to the context – if you live in the tropics, your weather options will be limited -, but sometimes it just works so well that it becomes an integral part of the reading experience.

Katherine Arden’s The Bear and The Nightingale is a winter book and not just any winter – a serious, freezing, you-might-die-of-cold winter of sparkling frost and danger. It is inspired by 14th century Rus, the not yet unified Russia, and Russian folklore. I read it at my mother’s place (literally on the oven) a bit more than 50 kilometers from the Russian border, during one of the few proper winter days we’ve had, in a house surrounded by forest and almost snowed in.

Even if you do not have the right backdrop, I do recommend you read the book. I’ve been lucky with my first fantasy picks of 2018. I started the year with The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin’s tour de force that I will most likely write about when I finish the trilogy. And now this: a beautiful, magical coming-of-age story in a setting not too often explored in Western literature.

Arden is excellent with atmosphere, her Russian village seems real and the winter very, very cold. The language is lyrical, but not too flowery – something I don’t have a very high tolerance for. It has been described as a dark fairytale and it is accurate, while not being too dark and not an actual retelling. I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like it and already after 20 pages it seemed astonishing that no-one had thought of something like this before (which reminds me that I need to read Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless).

The book is also strong when it comes to characters and relationships, especially family relationships. Vasilisa is a great protagonist – clearly special and gifted, but still relatable. Arden explains in an interview how she was constantly balancing her wishes for the heroine with what she might realistically do in Medieval Russia and I think she did it well. I also felt she did a very good job with human villains, if you can call them that. Of course, it helps when the ultimate baddie is fantastical, so we get the epic evil without turning the other characters into black-and-white figures.

For Estonian readers, a lot here is half familiar, as we have read the fairy tales and recognise most of the words Arden has borrowed from Russian. She has also explained why she has been inconsistent with transliteration in many cases (aesthetic and familiarity reasons, mostly) and generally, I’m completely fine with that. I did find it weird to have Moscow and Moskva river in the same paragraph, though.

Last weekend, I was ranting to my sister about the limits of fantasy. Not the ones inherent in the genre, but the ones put there by writers and readers. Somehow, when we have the opportunity to imagine ANYTHING, we mostly end up imagining, or at least reading about, a nostalgic version of Medieval Western Europe – with buxom maidens serving beer in cosy inns. And elves. It brings me so much joy that this is changing, not because I have anything against elves or inns, but because there is so much else out there to explore.

Have you had any “oh, this book was so perfect for that place/time/weather” experiences? Or any recent fantasy reads you’ve loved?


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  1. 1

    Hi Annikky, Like you too busy to comment much anywhere, but I was meaning to comment to your previous post, and since I am struck down with the flue I have time! It was my birthday yesterday and I immediately asked for the Bear and the Nightingale as a birthday present, it sounds totally up my ally, thank you so much for blogging about it. And as for your previous post, many of the things that haven given me real pleasure (Korean skincare tonic! Niod! Smokey Salt!) I found through your blog so your spending has made me happy too. I felt for some time the need to get a bit more of a grip on my finances, not out of necessity, but more out of not being thoughtless I think, and bought the Barefoot Investor. It is a hit in Australia, and it is really written for Australians (Portia commented on it), but I think there are a few very healthy gritty stockman attitudes (watch your money like an alpaca, very protective creatures), live like a millionaire now) which ring true, and we will work with (adapt where needed) over the coming weeks.
    I hope your situation will resolve!

    • 2

      I’m very conflicted now – glad to see you, but sorry to hear about the flu! I hope you’re on the mend. I also really, really hope you like the book and I keep hearing the sequel is even better. If you can spare a moment, let me know your thoughts (no worries if you can’t, I know how it is – I’m just indicating that I’m genuinely interested). Btw, I’ve just downloaded the first 50 pages of the Barefoot Investor. Excited!

  2. 3

    My most recent rereading of Jane Austen’s Persuasion was in Bath, along with thousands of other (mostly female) tourists. Not a very original example, for which I apologize, but it sure was fun to look up street names on my phone while I was reading, and realize that I’d walked there that very day. Reading the book while I was in Bath made me focus on Jane Austen the 19th century woman, who had walked in those damp streets, probably wearing itchy clothes. Just wondering: do you speak Russian? Was it the language spoken in Estonian schools when you were a child? If this is a sensitive subject, then I withdraw the question with apologies.

    • 4

      Reading Austen in Bath sounds delightful and original enough for me. As to my command of Russian (it’s perfectly fine to ask, although I appreciate your consideration), it’s unfortunately … incomplete. While I did start learning it in the kindergarten and continued for 12 years, I never mastered it, the reasons probably being a mixture of psychological and methodological. I can read Russian (slowly) and can still recite Pushkin by heart, but I cannot speak it properly and reading a book would be extremely difficult. Now I of course regret that I didn’t try harder at school (I was a straight A student, but we were awarded more for a good memory than actual language skills) and if I was in Estonia, would probably try to resurrect whatever knowledge I still have. And I forgot to mention that it was not the primary language at Estonian schools, but everybody had to learn it.

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