Katherine Arden so effectively writes about life under the unrelenting Medieval Russian winter that reading The Bear and the Nightingale could probably be used as air conditioning. This is the first line: “It was late winter in northern Rus’, the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow.” That’s the kind of damp cold that seeps in under collars and keeps scarves and gloves feeling constantly damp. Brrr.
While the Writer Unboxed Breakout Novel Dissection (BND) group didn’t test out that theory, we appreciated Arden’s worldbuilding skills. We are a Facebook book club for writers; four times a year we choose a breakout novel to take apart using questions derived from Donald Maass’s craft books and mine it for insights we can use in our own fiction.
Although with this book, some of Arden’s strengths contain within them a weakness:
- The fairy tale structure provided a strong hook and organizing principle, but also kept some readers from emotional engagement with the protagonist.
- Her characterization was strong and we were able to keep a large cast of characters distinct because of it. We even got to know the antagonists well enough that we could have compassion for them. However, internal conflict was lacking in the protagonist.
- The word “superpower” was mentioned a number of times about her worldbuilding–physical setting, culture, politics, supernatural as well as natural elements–but some found the wealth of detail overwhelming.
We will explore the writerly lessons we learned from The Bear and the Nightingale (TBatN) here, but we cannot do so without revealing some spoilers. Read on at your own peril.
The novel begins with an old woman telling the family she serves an old Russian story about the frost-demon and Winter King judging the sacrifice of one brave girl well and gives her a large dowry, and punishing a complaining girl and a greedy mother with an icy finger of death.
After that, the story centers around Vasya, a girl born to a Russian boyar, although she doesn’t enter the scene until chapter 3, and her mother dies giving birth to her. Vasya can see the household spirits (and other, less kindly demons) the Russians learned about in their folk tales, but who they have begun to deny due to the relatively new teachings of Christianity: little beings that live in the large ovens that heat their homes, in the barns and take care of the horses, in trees, in water, etc. Soon, she learns she can speak with them, and with horses; she takes responsibility to feed them, which puts her increasingly at odds with her changing society. When we add her desire to combine traditional Russian and new Christian spirituality to her very strong rejection of traditional women’s roles, her inability to do any of this quietly, and the tiny matter of being chosen by the Winter King, we have a big engine for conflict.
But, oddly, Vasya is the character with the least amount of internal conflict.
She accepts who she is and the role she is to play. Her inner dialogue is rich with discovery, curiosity, compassion, and frustration with the culture that rejects her, but not confusion about or rejection of her role. In this way, she’s very much a fairy tale hero. As Alisha Rohde said:
The outward central conflict seems to shift…but I felt it made sense in a fairy tale structure (i.e. once upon a time there was a girl who… and then… and then…) I think Vasya’s inner dilemma seems to stem from the conflict between her nature and abilities and the restrictions of her world/her family’s village.
John Kelley called the story “an ever-expanding fairy tale.” You see, the Winter King is not the only major demon in the story: he has a brother, nicknamed the Bear, who Vasya meets when she’s in the woods alone as a very young child. So both demons have their eye on her. Barbara Morrison noted that, “Vasya, while the protagonist, was actually collateral damage in the war between the brothers.”
There are mythic and cultural and familial forces all at work on this one young girl (she’s 16 at the end of the novel), so the story feels big, and touches on all kinds of universal themes, but because the story wasn’t driven by any internal conflict or change in Vasya, many of our Dissectors were not emotionally invested in the story.
Here’s where I admit that I inhaled this book and the two that followed and loved it so much that I didn’t notice that Vasya had no internal conflict until my fellow Dissectors pointed it out, so it is possible to be enthralled by all her discovery and compassion and sacrifice and the mythic and cultural and familial forces.
There were a lot of human characters to keep straight, and most of them had multiple names and nicknames, as well as household spirits, and horses, and other sprites and demons, but they all had distinct enough personalities and societal roles that we could (mostly) keep them straight. Because Arden wrote TBanN in omniscient voice, we got to know all the major characters from the inside. This was a major strength with the antagonists: Anna, Vasya’s step-mother, and Konstantin, the priest who comes to live in her village.
Alisha Rohde noted: “I liked how Arden made even the antagonists (who can be *really* 2-dimensional in a standard fairy tale) people who, here and there, elicited sympathy.” Anna’s cruelty to Vasya stemmed from something very specific: she could also see the household spirits, but because of her devout Christianity, she felt tormented by them, and by extension, by Vasya. Being privy to Anna’s genuine terror for the state of her soul took her out of standard evil-step-mother territory.
Similarly, Konstantin the Christian priest could have been a stereotypical power-hungry priest, but Arden gives him a genuine longing to hear the voice of God. His grief that he hasn’t heard from God is heartfelt, and gives us a measure of compassion for him. John Kelley said,
I found the depth of the antagonists compelling. That’s probably why the scenes of Vasya and Konstantin struck me as some of the strongest in the book. He was a mess of contradictions and doubts and weaknesses on the inside. Vasya had a clear if perhaps incomplete understanding of that.
Arden’s skill with characterization came out strongest with the one major non-antagonist who had internal conflict, and was one of our Dissector’s favorite characters: Vasya’s father, Pyotr Vladimirovich. Jan O’Hara explained it this way:
In some ways, Pyotr is the character with the most plot layers, partly because his responsibilities allow him a position of power in many realms. He must make decisions regarding the food, shelter, and social workings of the village. He must navigate the tricky political situation in Moscow. He attempts to meet his children’s emotional needs, even when then conflict with his personal desires and societal expectations. Finally, he is navigating all these while fighting against an existential threat.
Jan pointed out something that rang true for many of us: “Despite the emotional distance of the narrator, I sense that she loves this world–especially the otherworldly creatures–and forgives Konstantin, Anna, and their ilk for their misunderstandings and vulnerabilities.”
From the beginning, the reader is thrust into a richly drawn world: from life indoors revolving around the big oven/fireplace, to the grip of winter on the landscape and the people, how winter affected travel, how strictly gendered and patriarchal the society was, how religiously transitional the culture was. Vasya constantly runs up against her limitations in her culture, even while she’s discovering wonders in the supernatural side of that world, and everyone has something to say to her about it, whether for or against, and we learn more about that world every time.
Denise Fagerberg Tiller said: “The setting is a major character. It’s magical. The darkness, the frigid cold, the lack of education all contributes to the characters believing in the supernatural.”
Through Pyotr, we see the financial and political pressures of the time, and how insecure both were. Repeatedly, the princes of Moscow are referred to as, “the princes who lived,” because they kept killing each other off. Jan O’Hara notes that, “Social strata, politics, and hard-scrabble challenges of this time aren’t just part of the scenic backdrop but are woven into the central challenges that all characters face. Add to that the supernatural elements, and the worldbuilding is incredible.”
But Moira Stemack felt that “the story was peppered with the fantastical (barn elves, telepathic horses, a domovoi, a rusalka, an upyr)–it became an encyclopedic narrative.”
So, are a fairy tale structure, good characterization, and incredible worldbuilding “enough” to create a deeply engaging breakout novel, or does a story need something more?
According to the majority of Dissectors, a story needs something more: it needs to be driven by the internal conflict and change arc of the protagonist. Even for those of us who loved the novel, we admit that it would have been made stronger by adding some level of inner conflict.
Even so, The Bear and the Nightingale is a great read if you want to
- explore how to use a fairy tale to structure your story;
- see how a compassionate writing voice can still create powerful antagonists;
- learn how to weave a vibrant physical, cultural, supernatural, and political setting.
Have you read The Bear and the Nightingale? Do you have anything to add?
Can you recommend another book that uses a fairy tale structure to great effect? Or that inspires compassion or pity for the antagonist(s)? Or that is written by an author with superhero-level skills in worldbuilding?