Usually the most-read or “top-rated” books of the year during the year tend to be the thrillers and romance adventure; rarely are they the really good books that we’re always searching for. But Natalie decided to try out an intriguing title, and since she claimed it was her “favorite book of this decade, maybe century,” the rest of us joined the club. What follows is a slightly condensed 1×3 version (1 book, 3 reviewers) of our online discussion regarding Katherine Arden’s debut novel The Bear and the Nightingale.
RECAP: Set in medieval times, the story centers around Vasilisa (or “Vasya”) Petrovna and her family in their village in the frozen tundra of Russia. What most of us didn’t know is that this story is a retelling of an old Russian folktale about a girl and the Frost King. So much of the story involves these fairytale-like household spirits; and Vasya spends much of the story discovering and trying to understand the unique gifts and powers she somehow has – and how to best protect the ones she loves with them.
What was your star rating (out of 5) for this book?
Natalie: 5 stars. Arden sets the scene well. I even felt the temperature changes as I read – the brutality of winter and the warmth of the fires.
AB: Also 5 stars. I was engaged the entire time, and I cared about the characters.
Meg: I’m going with 4.5 stars – I loved the writing style, characters, character development (mostly), creativity of storyline, and vivid locale depictions – but didn’t care for the somewhat stereotypical “fundamental religious evil guy” and the “Vasya as strong-woman feminist hero” by the end. Just so Hunger Games/Divergent to me.
[Natalie and AB roll eyes]
So what about the characters was believable (or not)?
AB: I appreciated how most of the main characters were multi-faceted, which aids in believability. Pyotr [Vasya’s father] is a tough, Russian landowner who clings to a tradition that elevates the importance of male offspring; but he loves his girls and wants to do what’s best for them as well as desiring that they be genuinely happy. Those opposing elements are battling within him for most of the story. I find that realistic to human nature.
Meg: I thought that Anna (the stepmother’s) fall into hysteria/insanity because of her fears of the household spirits – and the people who respected them – while somewhat an extreme example, does accurately reflect the path that a life of fear instead of love can take us on. However, certain facets of Vasya’s development didn’t quite ring true. For the most part, she’s wild, headstrong, and independent – and thereby fairly self-centered (albeit charming and romantic-in-a-magical way). So her choices at the end (no spoilers!) are a little out of character to me.
Natalie: I found the characters consistent with other characters from Russian literature. Like, AB said, Pyotr is the strong father figure. Dunya, the grandmotherly figure. The brother [Sasha] who feels loyalty to his father but is conflicted by the pull towards religious devotion. I thought Vasya was less believable than the other characters, but that’s partly because of her other-worldliness. She’s magical.
What did you think about some of the anti-religion undertones that the novel seemed to take?
Natalie: I’m not sure I see it as anti-religious so much as anti-the established, oppressive religion of that time. Think about the conflict between the newish Russian orthodox religion and the old folk stories that were a kind of religion.
AB: Oh, those undertones are definitely present, even a crucial theme, but if you realize that from the start (as a discerning reader), it doesn’t need to detract from the story. The author may have intended for the reader to see this is anti-religion, but I saw it more as anti-established religion – the kind that takes advantage of its followers. And, of course, that’s not typical of genuine Christianity.
Meg: The “evil” character of Konstantin (the new village priest) created a struggle in my mind, simply because it appeared that Arden was putting more of the cause of his evil in his devoutness to a strict and intolerant religion rather than on the evil being the result of something that was already in his heart. But I think what at least cleared some of that up was the fact that Sasha, the kind brother, does also choose a life of religious devotion. So I’m waiting to see what she does in future novels …
Speaking of which, what do you think of this book being part of a trilogy?
Meg: I wasn’t aware that it was at the time; my personal opinion is that I wish it was just one book. Then I think maybe the ending could have been less rushed and had more resolution. But that’s just me.
Natalie: I will DEFINITELY read the next book and subsequent books.
AB: I didn’t know it was part one of a trilogy until after I had finished. So, that last line was what I needed, but it also left me sad.
What did you think of the title? Did it fit?
Meg: I was waiting the WHOLE TIME for the magical moment where everything came together to make the title magical – never happened. Then I was confused.
Natalie: It should’ve been something like The Girl and the Frost King.
AB: Just doesn’t sound as magical.
Meg: Then just call it Frozen. Because that’s how I felt the whole time I read it. [insert LOL emoji]
So why should anyone read it?
Natalie: The descriptive writing – it really is magical. It makes you want to be in a cozy room with a fire and a cup of hot Russian tea.
Meg: I was fascinated by all of the historical elements – an era and setting I know practically nothing about. But Arden’s ability to take a very old folk story and put it to paper in this way was inspiring – I want to find a totally random era now and go write a super-cool novel! (And with phrases like “super-cool”in my pocket, I’m off to a great start.) [more laughter emojis from all]
AB: The Vasya and Frost King/Death storyline reminds me so much of Meet Joe Black. One of my favorite movies.