Review of THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE by KATHERINE ARDEN
(first in the WINTERNIGHT trilogy)
I love novels that feel like both a familiar fairy tale and a distinct new story all at once. THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTGALE certainly fits that description.
Arden beckons in her readers with luscious, exquisite writing. Since I know writing is entirely a matter of taste, here’s an example of a line I really admired: “Ivan Kalita was a hard prince, eaten with ambition, cold and clever and grasping. He would not have survived otherwise; Moscow killed her princes quickly.”
I enjoyed this book, but I must confess that I didn’t feel it. Sometimes we read books that on a checklist seem good, but somehow we didn’t connect and as a reviewer (and a writer) I find pinpointing exactly why can be one of the most difficult aspects of assessing any story. My best guess here is that the narrative has a formal, distanced, detached tone and that discourages too much attachment from the reader. It’s one of those books that I would categorize as slow and quiet.
I also suspect pace as a major culprit in my hesitant investment. For me, this book dragged in Part I but really hit its stride in Part II, ultimately hooking me with the introduction of Konstantin. Unfortunately, that’s a good 100 pages into the book. Part I intrigued me, but felt unfocused, as if we were still waiting for the story to begin. In Part II, I felt I could identify a clear storyline with driving forces and compelling stakes.
I hardly ever say this, but I wanted more setting description. At times, I had the sense of a complex visual world full of snow and ice, fire and demons. Yet very little comes the reader’s way in terms of visual, physical description. I think this contributes to the detached voice as everything feels a bit too much to-the-point without the slanted, biased interpretation of a world through a distinct character that can make everything feel so unique and interesting.
Potential pacing issues aside, THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE is a haunting siren song of a story, luring readers into a cold Russian fantasy.