Katherine Arden – The Bear and the Nightingale Audiobooktext
Before reading “The Bear and the Nightingale”, I was torn between contradictory feelings. On the one hand, a certain impatience at the idea of discovering a novel set in a medieval Russian context (knowing that, if we stick to the novels available in the French language, the authors having ventured there must can be counted on the fingers of one hand). On the other hand, my instinct as a seasoned reader had set off several alarms: a first novel by a young American author, a teenage heroine with a rebellious character, the first volume of a trilogy … A few reassuring reviews from bloggers in who I have every confidence got the better of my hesitation. In the end, I did well to embark on this adventure, and despite my reluctance towards the trilogy format, I will certainly read the next volumes when they are published. Katherine Arden – The Bear and the Nightingale Audiobook.
In a way, the heroine of “The Bear and the Nightingale” is an archetypal character from a Russian tale: her first name evokes both the Princess-Frog (Vassia is also compared to a frog by her brothers and sisters) and Vassilissa-la-très-belle who, like our heroine, is raised by a widowed father and, when he remarries, finds himself bullied by her mother-in-law. Katherine Arden had the good idea to give this stepmother a role a little more complex than that of simple villain: like Vassia, Anna has the gift of seeing the supernatural creatures which remain invisible to the common man … except that , fervent Christian, she rejects these visions which she assimilates to demonic manifestations, making her look crazy. This difference between the two women illustrates the ambivalence of the spirits of Russian paganism which, depending on the circumstances, can bring peace and balance or chaos and destruction. Roussalka and Liéchi, Vodianoï and Domovoi, Baba Yaga and Morozko … All appear in these pages, in person or mentioned in the course of a story told in front of the stove. These traditional figures from Russian tales and folklore are so eagerly awaited that one would feel cheated if they were absent! On the other hand, I was more surprised to meet historical figures there: the grand-princes Ivan I and Ivan II of Moscow, Saint Sergius of Radonge, the future Dimitri Donskoy … So many elements indicating that we are at mid 14th century. At that time, Russia was still under Mongol rule (princes paying tribute to the khan of the Golden Horde) but it would soon begin the process that would lead to independence. I really liked this choice to place the plot in such a context, but even if it meant calling on big names in Russian history, I would have preferred that they were more exploited. Perhaps they will be in the following volumes? I can already imagine a rewrite of the battle of Kulikovo with mythical creatures fighting alongside the Russians to kick the Tatars out of the country!
The novel may well be sold as adult fantasy, given the youth of the main character I had some apprehensions … which were irrelevant. Naivety and sentimentality have no place in this northern Russia, covered with impenetrable forests, where winter never seems to end and where living conditions are particularly harsh. Vassia is admittedly reluctant to convention, independent, out of step with the men and other women around her, but she is not one of those too many heroines of historical novels decked out in a current Western mentality. As the granddaughter of a swan woman and great-granddaughter of the King of the Seas, she is linked to the supernatural world, to the spirits of the forest … We thus avoid an anachronistic feminist discourse: if Vassia refuses to having a husband imposed on herself is not so much because such practices are unjust, but because she would thus lose her freedom to come and go alone in nature, and that she would be separated from these spirits that she understands better than anyone. I admit, however, that I shuddered with horror when I saw Konstantin, the young and handsome priest recently arrived in the village, develop an upset attraction for Vassia … Fortunately, romance will be spared us. Phew!
There’s not much to say about Katherine Arden’s writing style: it might lack a bit of personality, but it’s quite satisfying, especially since it is of a first novel. Besides, the few blunders I stumbled upon seemed to me to be the translation. Knowing the subject of medieval Russia well, I was on the lookout for possible errors, approximations or anachronisms, which are ultimately rare [*]. We can’t say that I devoured this novel, I read it quite slowly, bit by bit, but each time I was impatient to resume my reading to dive back into the special atmosphere of Lesnaïa Zemlia , this small Russian village lost in the forest. In fact, “The Bear and the Nightingale” is worth more for its atmosphere than for its plot. During most of the story (roughly, the first two parts out of the three it includes), we follow the evolution of the different characters, Vassia in the first place, without really knowing where the author intends to take us. Everything becomes clearer in the last chapters, which leave more room for action, the latent threat is finally identified and we come close to one of the worst clichés of fantasy on this occasion: the awakening of a centuries-old evil force. .. a matter which has the good taste to be promptly settled. As this is a trilogy, I hope that we will continue on this momentum and that we do not fall into the ease of the heroic quest to save the world, led by a young girl with extraordinary powers. Katherine Arden was able to avoid this pitfall in this first volume, so I trust her for the rest![*]
Marina is the daughter of Ivan Kalita, and Anna is the daughter of one of Ivan Kalita’s sons, yet both women are said to have the same grandfather. The Mongolian Horde amassed wealth over three centuries of looting, when it had only entered Russia a century earlier. There have been monks in Kiev for five centuries, when in reality Christianity replaced paganism only three and a half centuries ago. One of the characters is compared to a Siberian bear, except that Siberia does not yet exist: the Russians will not explore and conquer the regions beyond the Urals until two centuries later. Katherine Arden – The Bear and the Nightingale Audiobook.
Finally, the work of Aurélien Police is always of quality and this cover is aesthetically very successful, but it annoys me to recognize the Saint-Basile Cathedral there while it will be built in the 16th century and it will not take its current aspect that much later … It is a little as if one illustrated a novel on the Hundred Years War with the silhouette of the castle of Chambord. But since it’s Russian, that’s fine, no one will see a thing!