Scheduling Note: Since my last review for Elantris touched on my quibbles over Chosen Ones in fantasy, it made sense to review Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale immediately after. I finished it last week and am currently reading its sequel: The Girl in the Tower.
The Bear and the Nightingale hits many pitfalls of Chosen One stories, but I didn’t notice until the cheesy climax because it’s such an entertaining read. It’s snowy, moody, and packed with magic—the superstitious, fairy tale kind. The opening scenes depict a family sitting around and telling old stories of Morozko (Frost). It sets the tone well and is an entertaining way of providing key background information for the main story, which takes place in a small Russian town next to the woods. Vasya’s mother dies in childbirth after speculating on what magic her last daughter may have inherited. At first, Vasya’s sight simply allows her to communicate with the household spirits who tend to the house and horses. They need her help when a priest comes to town and dissuades people from the old ways. Hungry for lack of offerings, the spirits warn they may no longer be able to protect the townspeople from the dark powers that are stirring in the woods. This is where Vasya comes in.
The first part of the book is well-balanced. There’s a lot of dread and worry about what’s going on in the woods as no one seems to know (or is willing to discuss) what’s out there. Cryptic phrases heighten the tension and Vasya’s skillset indicates the final showdown will be intense because she’s clearly not strong enough yet and her efforts to nourish the household spirits cost her greatly. As Vasya watches the priest and his effects on the town, she knows things will worsen:
But Vasya was frightened.
Not of the priest, and not of the devils, nor of pits of fire. She had seen their devils. She saw them every day. Some were wicked, and some were kind, and some were mischievous. All were as human in their own way as the folk they guarded.
No, Vasya was frightened of her own people. They did not joke on the way to church anymore; they listened to Father Konstantin in heavy, hungry silence. And even when they were not in church, the people made excuses to visit his room. (116)
The relationship between Vasya and Father Konstantin is the weakest part of the book for me. Arden brings different characters to the forefront of the story to dictate events from multiple perspectives. The priest is annoyingly conflicted: He believes Vasya is a witch and fears her, but goes on and on and on and on about her green eyes. The descriptions of Vasya’s wildness and her green eyes—they’re green, are we on the same page here?—begin to feel overdone. He’s a walking, talking, conflict—a clichéd one at that. At first, it works for the story: Vasya’s not strong enough to deal with the Bear in the woods, but she’s wild enough to try anything and be unpredictable. The conflict between her and the priest (his rantings aside) is a solid first act that sets up an interesting final battle.
But then we get to the final battle and find this:
[redacted] spared Vasya a quick, burning glance, and she felt an answering fire rising in her: power and freedom together. The great bay stallion was beneath her, the wild eyes of the frost-demon there, and between them the monster. She flung her head back and laughed, and as she did, she felt the jewel at her throat burn. (294)
And that’s when I laughed and put the book down. Because all that carefully layered fear, dread, and vulnerability is cast off in one second of pure B-movie camp.
So once it’s established Vasya has no fear at all (and probably isn’t in danger since the jewel is a nice reminder of her Chosen One status), she’s free to do something stupid. There are semi-immortal beings running around calling the shots and Vasya interrupts because she has an idea… an idea to cut her arm to distract a vampire… and OH MY GOD THIS IS !@#$%!! TWILIGHT.
HOW. HOW. HOW did this novel that I had been so earnestly enjoying devolve into Twilight: Eclipse?? Suddenly, all tension, all the previous storytelling fell away and I was watching Bella, I mean Vasya, save the day by creating a large enough distraction for other things to happen. To be fair, Bella doesn’t manage to cut her arm open, she only considers it. Still, though.
And then the semi-immortal being kisses Vasya BEFORE THE BATTLE IS EVEN OVER: “Unexpectedly he reached out and drew her close and kissed her, quick and fierce.” (298) What an Edward thing to do.
Overall: The first part of the book is a solid 4.7. The magical house that is simultaneously a forest and a house is wonderfully written. I was fascinated by the household spirits and their scenes kept me reading. Don’t get me started on how much I liked the horses. That Twilight thing though and how quickly everything is resolved after so much build-up (also like Twilight)…
Final score: 2.5 (out of 5.0) Endings count. I bought the rest of the trilogy after I’d read half of this book so I’ve got two more to go now. Maybe they’ll stick their landings? Please?
Image credit: Goodreads