Friday, February 5, 2021

Review: THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE by Katherine Arden

Rating: 2.75/5 stars

I really wanted to love this book. I have many friends who love it, it has glowing reviews, and the editions I own have some of the most beautiful covers I’ve ever seen. I truly hoped this would become my new favorite series. But sadly, I am disappointed. 

First of all, this story is very slow. Excruciatingly slow. And this is coming from someone who doesn’t love action scenes and actually enjoys slow books. But it just wasn’t working for me. It’s a character-based story. While I tend to prefer plot-based stories more, I still love good character work. But that’s the problem here, I couldn’t relate to ANY of the characters. I really struggled to connect to anyone; everyone felt really flat to me. Plus I struggled to differentiate some of the characters because the way Russian names work, everyone had like two or three or four names and nicknames, and I couldn’t keep them straight.

I don’t really know what this book was about, either. It mostly follows Vasilisa, or Vasya, from the time when her mother conceived her until she was around sixteen, and she’s kind of the black sheep of the family, always running into the forest and causing trouble and having an opinion, which was really looked down upon during this time. The first half of the book is just day-to-day life and there wasn’t really a solid storyline. At one point she sees a one-eyed man in the forest, and at another point, Father Konstantin comes to their village to preach repentance. He’s very unlikeable and was constantly butting heads with Vasya. There wasn’t really much more that happened during the first half though.

The words “bear” or “nightingale” didn’t even show up until nearly 50% of the way into the book, but we don’t find out what they mean or who they are until 80% of the way through the story. Just verrrry slow-moving. 

Another thing that really bothered me was that the points of view of this story were all over the place. It would follow Vasya’s POV and then there would be two random paragraphs from Alyosha’s perspective, and then back to Vasya, and then all of the sudden it would switch to third-person omniscient POV and we would know what a bunch of people were thinking and doing all at the same time, and then it would switch back to first-person but in Konstantin’s viewpoint. It was so messy, and I can’t believe this wasn’t caught or fixed by an editor because this really felt like sloppy novice writing. Which this was Katherine Arden’s debut novel, and I’m sorry to say that I can tell, both from the writing and from the lack of structure.

This book felt a lot to me like Uprooted by Naomi Novik. That’s another example of a fairytale story where there’s an evil in the woods and the female protagonist confronts it only to find out that the evil is actually a misunderstood man who is only trying to protect her, who undoubtedly becomes the love interest and whisks the girl away. I had a similar experience with Uprooted where it sounded amazing and I wanted to love it but was only left feeling let down. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or if I just don’t like these type of fairytale stories.

Another thing that bothered me about this story was that Christianity was viewed in an entirely negative light, almost to the point of being malicious. Father Konstantin is easily the most unlikeable character in the whole book, and he keeps trying to force Vasya to do what he wants and force his will on her, when in all reality he is not God and therefore has no authority over her, but I didn’t like how he acted like he did. It also made me rather uncomfortable when a demon was impersonating the voice of God while speaking to Konstantin, and it’s not clear at first if it’s actually the voice of God or not, but the demon told him to do some not nice things to Vasya, and that whole scene rubbed me the wrong way that Konstantin would mistake doing evil as the Lord’s will when obviously that would never be the case. He was actually a very wicked priest, but I don’t think he even realized it. 

And then the ending was very anticlimactic to me. I didn’t feel invested in the stakes at all, and I didn’t feel sad when I know I should have. It was honestly a struggle at times for me to push through the ending. Ultimately I was left feeling like this was a forgettable story that could have been so much better but did not deliver what I hoped for. 

I’ve heard The Bear and the Nightingale is the slowest of the three books, so I will continue reading this series in hopes that it improves. I’ve also heard that the ending of The Winter of the Witch is one of the most satisfying series finales ever, which has me very intrigued to know why, so I know I want to finish the series, even if I don’t currently love it. 

I’m really sad about my experience with this book. It was ultimately just too slow and aimless for my preference, but I know it gets praised for its beautiful storytelling and atmospheric setting (which I disagree with on both accounts), so if it sounds like sometime you would enjoy I still encourage you to check it out. I will be starting The Girl in the Tower very soon and I have high hopes that there will be more of a central focus to that one and I will like it more, so we shall see. 

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