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.