Another book club book, though one that had been vaguely on my radar for a while anyway. It’s not made it to any of the awards I’m reading or anything, but it just… kept cropping up. All over the place. This is usually a sign that something is worth reading, if not because I’ll enjoy it for itself, then because when everyone else starts discussing it I’ll have some opinions ready… which is nearly as important. So I was really glad when it got nominated for this month, and even gladder when it won.
And then I read it in like, two days, which says a lot of good things.
That being said, it’s not really charting as one of my favourite books of the year. Not because I didn’t enjoy it – I did, it was very readable, and I didn’t really want to put it down at any point – but because it wasn’t really… special, I guess? I’m struggling to explain, so let’s hope several thousand words of rambling will help me clear it up.
Oh, and there will be minor spoilers in here (though pretty damn minor) because one of the things I want to talk about kind of requires hinting at stuff that happens later on in the book. Sorry.
So, first impressions of it (apart from “well that was a slightly odd author’s note at the start”*) were very much that it was like Uprooted, but much less tight and focused and directed. And this feeling persisted, I think, for slightly more than half of the book. And that’s a long time to be comparing something unfavourably to another book. Which is a little mean, because Uprooted was pretty damn good, and so most things are going to pale in comparison, but they felt very much like they were aiming at a similar vein (not just in the sense of doing mythology stuff, but also in the way they shaped their protagonists). And, well… comparisons are just going to happen.
But by the time you get to the end of the book, it becomes fairly clear that The Bear and the Nightingale is aiming at something different. It just takes a very long time to get you there.
And I suppose that’s my main issue with it. The book is incredibly groundwork heavy – you get years and years of semi-involved build-up to get to the protagonist being the right age and all the actual action of the novel happening. And I’m not entirely saying that was unnecessary, because it wasn’t really… but at the same time, you end up feeling like you might never actually get to the story. Because it definitely feels like scene-setting all that time. Sure, things happen, but with a heavy layer of forboding and awareness of stuff to come, so you never feel like you’ve actually got to the point until pretty late on. Once you do get to the story, it’s pretty great, and the work that’s gone into it does, in many ways, pay off… but it’s a lot of a trade, page for page, to get there. I’m not sure if it was totally worth it. It’s not a long book, so maybe the answer would have been a longer period of story, rather than a cropping of the lead-in.
What I did like was the heavy layering of the mythology – and that’s something I think it actually did better than Uprooted. I’m not really familiar with Russian myths, beyond “Baba Yaga is a thing?”, so it was really enjoyable getting that presented quite prominently. There’s also a story-teller character and, while a lot of what she does is just really really obvious foreshadowing, if the stories being told aren’t familiar to you, that’s a really useful device to have, especially if you keep those stories fairly short, which Arden does. Presenting the mythology in a fairly historical setting, and having it in opposition with Christianity but in a realistic way… that was nice too. I’m not totally sure I’m happy with how the priests were portrayed, but overall, I think it was a valuable device for setting up the conflict without having to tinker too heavily with the mythology itself – it allows Arden to just let things be, which I think is a good choice too. Reinterpreting mythology is a great thing, especially when done well, but you don’t always have to… sometimes it’s perfectly fine in the original interpretation.
That being said, I like how the mythology is often only adjacent to the story. It’s also about her familial relationships, and growing up, and independence. And obviously most stories are these as well, but told through the mythological side, whereas in this, they sort of sit next to each other, and tell different parts of the story.
As I’ve sort of said earlier, the pacing could have used some work, but the writing in general was pretty good, and very atmospheric. She’s not got the way with words of some of my favourite authors, but she knows how to tell a story, and how to set a scene you can really feel. It’s July, but reading about the winters of the Russian north was making me want to huddle up in a blanket with a hot drink… and if that’s not successful writing, I’m not sure what is.
She’s also pretty good with her characterisation. When reading Russian-set things before, I’ve slightly struggled with the way that the characters end up with like, four different names each depending on who’s talking to them, some of which I’m not intuitively grasping as related (e.g. “Sasha” for “Aleksandr” in this book). If you back that up with poor characterisation, I am going to be totally lost about who’s who. But Arden has her people speaking like people, with their independent voices, and so you don’t struggle so much with keeping track of who’s who, even in the fairly wide cast that The Bear and the Nightingale throws at you. She gets a good range of personalities in her mythological creatures too, from the remote coldness of the rusalka to the friendliness of the domovoy and the inscrutability of Morozko – they manage to be both alien and familiar, in a way that sets them apart from the humans of the story without making them unknowable.
All in all, it’s a pretty good book that I just have a few quibbles with. I gave it four stars without too much consideration, because for all it wasn’t perfect, I really enjoyed reading it, and I would happily read more from Arden in future (which is lucky, as I believe there is due to be a sequel).
There was one thing that stuck in my mind to a stupid degree, considering that it wasn’t particularly a massive problem. And that was the fact that the title of the book gets taken from two fairly… non-significant things right near the end. And that annoys me. Because ultimately, the book is not in any way about the bear and the nightingale. They’re not really emblematic, or meaningful. So it feels like the title was tacked on at the end, somewhat haphazardly (or it’s a title taken from Russian myth but just really ill-fitting? I don’t know). And this really, really bothers me. On the strength of this alone, I was tempted to shunt it down to three stars. But that’s… pretty harsh, so I stopped myself. But I was tempted. Bah, harrumph, etc.
Next up, The Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee, sequel to Ninefox Gambit. I am much looking forward to it.
*The author starts with a note on her transliteration choices, specifically about why she’s been inconsistent in them. And it… didn’t entirely make sense to me? But I say this as someone who would always be dedicated to authentic transliteration. And I just didn’t get her aesthetic arguments. But eh. It just struck me as slightly weird to lead in with it.