The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden 


This book was my favourite in 2017, closely followed by La Belle Sauvage (which I reviewed here).

Here is the blurb, my review follows.

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…

My review :

I was quickly and easily enthralled by the story. Northern Russia and its folklore was an uncharted territory for me and I was eager to discover it.

I found that the atmosphere was very well set up, I could almost feel the biting cold on my fingers, hear the roaring wind, get lost in the shadowy woods.  I really enjoyed the writing, which was elegant, utterly poetic and subtily lyric. There were parts so beautiful I had to pause and savour them.

“The blinding afternoon sunlight gave way to honey-gold, and at last to amber and rust. A faint half moon showed just above a line of pale yellow sky.”

As for the storytelling, I found the characters depictions vivid, I felt as if I intimately knew each of them, I had a precise idea of their personality. The plot itself was exciting and well developed. I found myself impatient to know how Vasya would deal with the obscure forces at play and her fight against the power-hungry priest was very interesting to follow. The intricacy of the latter’s mind was carefully built, which made him an extremely interesting and ambivalent character. The role of Morozko, the frost-daemon, was subtily revealed, and he remained an ambiguous character. To be honest, I almost fell in love with his controled power and cold charisma.

Savagely, he quelled both thought and impulse. Painting was for the glory of God, not to glorify the frailty of transient flesh. ‘She summoned a devil. It was the finger of God that saved my life’.

Interestingly, although  the reader ends up having a somehow clear opinion on the different “demons” that inhabit the village and the woods, one does not has any tangible encounter with the God so piously revered by some characters. It is hinted that He only deals with the afterlife, the world of the spirits. But it is difficult to determine whether He does any good to the people that pray for him. And the only character  that seems to have a strong but sound bond with Him leaves the main action very quickly. It will be interesting to learn more about him in the second book.

Overall a very well crafted story. The confrontation between the old folklore and beliefs, and the “new” religion is a very interesting theme, and it was beautifully developed in this first instalment of the Winternight trilogy. Nevertheless, there are still some ambiguities to strip away and some plot points to connect. ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐/5

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