I think that this book illustrates how very important good prose is to a novel. Because I liked this book a lot while I was reading it, and a little bit less after I finished it.
The Bear and the Nightingale reads like a fairy tale. As well it should because it is clearly based on old Russian folklore. Set sometime before the middle ages but after Christendom reached the lands of Russia, a young girl is born to a rich family deep in the Russian countryside. Her mother knows what she is: a witch. One who can see the old gods, the magical creatures of the forest, and the Bear, who is coming to prey on mankind. As she grows older she must balance her burgeoning powers against her families wishes as to what a good woman should be. Especially her paranoid stepmother, who can also see the magical creatures.
Arden’s prose is flatout amazing. She dances from sentence to sentence, sprinkling in a delicious smorgasbord of Russian words and names. Since most contemporary fiction from Russia is a drag of sullen nihilism, a beautiful spectrum of the dictionary is a wonderful change of pace. It distracts you from the lack of things happening in the novel because it takes a while for it to get really going.
There’s an odd mix of YA and NA in this book. Clearly some adult themes, but I’m not sure the main character, Vasya, gets much older than 15. I really, really enjoyed the brief time the novel turned into a horror story. Middle of the Russian winter: bears, wolves, and upyrs (vampires) are killing people and trying to break in. But there’s not enough wood so the townspeople have to go outside to chop down trees. Thrilling; I can see the movie getting made about that part alone.
Instead it comes to a conclusion that I found a bit lacking. Because the real magic the whole time was love you guys. Aww, sweet. No, thank you, I wanted Vasya to summon a sword into existence and stab a bear to death after what she’d been through.
Beautiful prose, amazing setting, a nice diversion that I ate up in a single 24-hour period. But it is lackluster in a few areas. (Like, I know the horse was a nightingale, but is Vasya the nightingale?! Because that horse does jackshit in the book besides be sassy). Technically part of a trilogy, but you can read it as a standalone.
3 out of 4 stars.