As Katherine Arden herself states in her author’s note at the end of The Bear and the Nightingale, she does take some liberties with Russian names, as well as the history in which her story takes place. However, her capable storytelling allows the reader to set aside this knowledge and simply enjoy the story she has created.
Arden’s novel is visually detailed. It is easy to picture the setting and the various set pieces of this story, from Pyotr Vladimirovich’s great house and the Grand Prince’s vast hall adorned with a heavily laden dining table, to the great battle scene that rounds out the story at the novel’s end. The story juxtaposes images that trick the reader’s sensibilities. What initially appears to be a stark, blank canvas, is actually teaming with abundant and colorful detail. Even the shadows that lurk through Konstantin’s bed chamber offer essential insights not only in terms of plot, but in terms of the internal conflict that faces Konstantin as well.
While a reader might think that such attention to detail might hamper their enjoyment of the story, that is not the case here. Arden’s prose flows easily. Her descriptions become part of the action, supporting the characters and their interactions with each other. When characters are talking, it’s fun to also picture on the side a little domovoi, or house elf, sitting by a clay oven with a long, smoking beard, munching on burnt crusts of leftover bread. The folkloric elements complement the realistic aspects of the story well. The characters have real presence. Their various conflicts are very natural and real, despite the supernatural elements that are ever-present. The petty jealousies, fears, fervent devotions, honest love of family and daily toils help ground and balance the novel, maintaining the reader’s interest throughout.
While the story is entertaining, some readers might balk at the novel’s somewhat abrupt ending. Though there is a definite conclusion, Arden leaves some details open-ended, enough to make a potentially satisfying sequel. After reading and conducting some research on Katherine Arden’s website, she states that this book is the first of a trilogy—information I did not know prior to reading. In truth, I’m glad and can’t wait to revisit the feisty Vasya and her folkloric world, and perhaps see further intrigues related to the ever troubled Konstantin.
Copy provided by NetGalley