Hugo reading 2018: The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden

I saved Katherine Arden for last in this section, since I saw that she had provided a copy of her novel, The Bear and the Nightingale, which looked like a fairy tale retelling – one of my favourite subgenres.

It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous book, and stands alone beautifully, though I gather it is the first in a trilogy (I almost don’t want to read the rest when it comes out in case it spoils the perfection of this story).  The protagonist of the story is Vasya, whose father is a lord in northern Russia, and whose mother had witchy blood.  While her other siblings are normal, pleasant, people, Vasya is wild, loves the forest, and can see the little household and woodland spirits – and the larger spirits, too.  Unfortunately for Vasya, when her father remarries, her new stepmother, the Tsar’s daughter, is a very devout woman who can also see spirits, but believes them to be devils.  She does not like her wild daughter, and matters become even more difficult when the Tsar sends a charismatic young priest, Konstantin, to the household, and he forbids offerings to the local spirits, allowing the demon of winter to begin to prey on the village.

The fairy tale is set in northern Russia, where it is winter most of the time, and very, very cold.  While there are personifications of Winter and Frost in this story, the non-personified season of winter is almost a character in its own right, too.  Even without any supernatural interventions, the frost and cold are formidable foes in this world.  Really, the setting of this book was one of its great strengths – I’m normally there for the characters and can take or leave the setting, but there was just something compelling about how *cold* everything was.  Oh, and I also liked that even though Pyotr is wealthy and important enough to be marrying a princess, his house is still cold, they still start running out of food during winter, and so forth – in this world, even being wealthy doesn’t entirely shield you from want.  It’s a very marginal existence, regardless of your status.

I loved the way the family in this book worked.  Pyotr, Vasya’s father, is a kind, slightly stern father, who loves his daughter, but recognises that in their world, there is no place for a young woman who seems fitted neither for marriage nor a convent, and so he tries to bend her to one or the other of these things, even while knowing that this will not be good for her.  He tries to be a good father, but lacks imagination – and, perhaps also, the power – to make a place in the world that will fit Vasya’s personality.  And he makes hard choices – he does his best to save Vasya from what seems very likely to be an awful fate, but his way of doing so is something that he knows will make her absolutely miserable.  And naturally, he doesn’t ever think to tell her what it is he is saving her from, or why he is so determined to see her settled, whether she likes it or not.

Vasya’s brothers and sisters are close and loving, even Vasya’s stepsister, who is the pretty one and much favoured by her mother, so that was a nice touch.  And Pyotr did not marry Anna from choice, but rather from politics, but tries to be a good husband by the standards of the time (which… aren’t that great, but again, this is more about lack of imagination than anything else, and Anna does not seem to expect anything different from him.)

I also liked the way Konstantin, the young priest, was written.  There were so many clichéd ways he could have been played – I thought this was going to be an old-gods-versus-new-gods situation, but I was pleased to see that this wasn’t where Arden went with the story.  He’s definitely not a good person – he loves power rather too much for that – but for much of the book, he is torn in several directions, between what he believes to be right, and what he is seeing.  He always makes the wrong decision, but he is not always unsympathetic.

The first two thirds of the book were increasingly oppressive and hard to read – I felt like matters spent a long time getting worse and worse before we finally got to see the heroine start taking decisive action – but this is perhaps realistic.  Vasya is still very young, after all, and she does love her family – it takes an extreme situation to push her into defiance. The end of the story was also an interesting and appropriate choice.  I thought the author might go somewhere different (and, well, if there is a trilogy, that may still happen), but was pleased that she didn’t take the easy choice.

I highly recommend this book – if you enjoy feminist fairy tales that have a fair bit of darkness in them but still allow light to triumph, then I think you’ll enjoy this.

Katherine Arden is unquestionably going to be my top vote for the Campbell awards.  I think I want to put Vina Jie-Min Prasad second, because her stories were just such fun, then Sarah Kuhn, Jeanette Ng, Rivers Solomon and Rebeca Roanhorse.

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