ARC review: The Bear and the Nightingale

25489134Title: The Bear and the Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Genre: Historical fiction, fantasy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Goodreads Summary: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.

I didn't like this book as much as I thought I would. If more of the book had been like the last quarter or so, I probably would have liked it more. I think I just wasn't expecting the right sort of book. If I had expected historical fiction with a little dust of magic and folklore, I probably would have enjoyed it more. I was expecting a book with a lot more magic, especially because the title is so mysterious and reminiscent of fairy tales.

Most of the book was a young girl growing up in Russia in a time period where women were expected to be humble and domestic. Vasya is instead headstrong and wild, and does what her heart tells her. She follows the old traditions and feels a deep connection to the creatures and spirits of Russian folklore, even as her family members try to assimilate and become good Christians. I really liked Vasya, especially because of the contrast between Vasya and her step-mother. I also loved the portrayal of the Lord of Winter/Death. He isn't actually in much of the book but the few moments where he is present are magical.

I have really mixed feelings about the writing style. On one hand, it was very lyrical and beautiful, and quite fitting for a story about the richness of folklore and magic in every day life. On the other hand, I felt like the prose was a little...for lack of a better word...cold. I didn't feel very connected to the characters throughout the book, and it was mostly because the writing style told story as if you were a neighbor passing by and looking into people's lives instead of engaging with people and really understanding them.

Another thing that kept me from really getting into the book is how slow it was. The prologue was beautiful and got me hooked, but then nothing much happened for the rest of the book. The last quarter of the book was really intense and I thought the book had a fantastic and fitting ending, but it was just hard to stay focused in the middle. Thankfully the book isn't that long so it wasn't too bad even with the slow middle.

I did like this book, but it wasn't as magical as I was hoping it would be. I would definitely recommend it, but with the caveat that it's a very slow book and more historical fiction than fantasy.

A free eARC was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

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