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The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, an elderly servant tells stories of sorcery, folklore and the Winter King to the children of the family, tales of old magic frowned upon by the church.

But for the young, wild Vasya these are far more than just stories. She alone can see the house spirits that guard her home, and sense the growing forces of dark magic in the woods…
~~~~~
As you’ll likely have gathered, I’m a sucker for fairytales, for non-Anglosphere stories, and for hype, and The Bear and the Nightingale is a much-hyped retelling of a Russian folk tale, grabbing my attention thricefold. Beautifully packaged and widely anticipated, when I saw it on the shelves at work I didn’t really bother trying to resist.

The writing is undeniably beautiful; Arden is fantastic at calling up the windswept snow, the chilly winter, the expectation of frostbite, the fear of famine, the darkness of a long night, the beauty of an icon, the crowded musk of a family packed together in the long months. The Bear and the Nightingale is a visually stunning book in that sense, with evocative writing that makes the best use of the landscapes and settings of the tale; there really are shadows in the woods, and those aren’t just your mind creating faces where none really are… It’s got a kind of creepiness to it, at times, that matches Algernon Blackwood at his creepy animistic best.

Sadly, the beauty of the writing isn’t really matched by the rest of the book. The Bear and the Nightingale falls into a number of tropes typical of fairytales, including passive women (it almost avoids this and then, at the crucial moment… men to the rescue), the wicked and hateful stepmother who sees her new stepdaughter as a rival, and a seriously weird objectification of women (from everyone; so many of the male characters’ motivations are based around the sexuality of the women, without concern for the thought of the women). Arden is uncritically retelling, rather than reworking, rewriting, or otherwise playing with, a folk story, and a rather misogynistic form of that folk story. This is no subversion, unlike the work of Kirsty Logan, or critical retelling, like Angela Carter, or complete rebuilding, a la T. Kingfisher; Arden has left all the elements of such stories that cry out to be rewritten for a modern age wholly intact.

The plot is also just messy. Plot lines are picked up (a son goes to a monastery; a daughter marries upwards; the father marries upwards) but then fundamentally abandoned – there appears to be no change in the family or in social stature from any of the events of the book except in the immediate village. Hooks are dangled throughout that are seized upon for a moment but then passed over as if the reader out to expect no further consequences from events, actions, or feelings; every character, one feels, is left totally unfulfilled because the thing that would fulfill them vanished from the book.

The other major problem is a thematic one. Arden takes as a key theme the conflict between traditional beliefs and Christianity, and ends up in something of an incoherent muddle; The Bear and the Nightingale casts as evil those who fanatically take religion as the only truth, in opposition to superstition, and makes those superstitions true without the slightest hint Christianity is… but also attempts to have Christianity correct, not just a positive force but a true one as well, a needle it never really threads well. It’s a poorly thought through argument that is just left to lie, like so many of the plotlines in the novel.

That is all compounded by an unnecessary afterword that her editors should have told her to leave on the cutting room floor. Arden, in The Bear and the Nightingale, uses inconsistent transliterations – which no reader would know unless they knew the Russian; the problem is her reasoning for why, namely “to retain a bit of their [the Russian words] exotic flavour”, and to make them “aesthetically pleasing” to Anglophone readers. Both lines of reasoning recast the whole book in an unpleasantly Othering light, right down to the approach to the setting; everything must be looked at with more critical eyes, and as a result some less pleasant and happy conclusions reached.

In the end, I came out of The Bear and the Nightingale disappointed. I was hoping for something more like Catherynne Valente’s Deathless, a reworking of a myth, but instead came out of a book with the prose of a Valente but no real craft to back it up.

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