STAFF PICK: The Bear and the Nightingale by Jennifer Arden

Title: The Bear and the Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Kathleen Gati

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses…

Such is the setting for Katherine Arden‘s debut novel, The Bear and the Nightingale. A lush retelling of Medieval Russian folklore and the first installment in the Winternight Trilogy, this 13-hour-long audiobook will quickly have you rooting for its feisty heroine Vasilisa “Vasya” Petrovna. A country lord’s daughter with the gift of Sight, Vasya can see the household spirits and magical creatures that are invisible to the rest of her community. Tradition dictates honoring these spirits, but when a priest comes to town, he demands that the people forsake their old faith for the new. Now, the natural balance that harbors prosperity is in jeopardy, and Vasya must strike out on her own to reckon with some very dark forces.

Narrator Kathleen Gati‘s rich Russian accent transported me to the cold, snowy forests and quaint village life of Vasya and her family, making this the perfect book to listen to in the dead of winter. While the story starts out slowly with lots of background and exposition, patience through these sections pays off: my commitment to Vasya and my depth of understanding as the story started to quicken was due to its slow beginnings.

Central to the tale is Vasya’s frustration with being born a woman, and the limited options available in Russia c. 900 CE; she can get married, or become a nun. Her journey towards independence, empowerment and agency are the most exciting parts of this book, even better than the magic and adventure of the story’s fantasy elements. This passionate passage highlights that focus:

“All my life,” she said, “I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant … or I must hide myself behind walls. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing.”

I loved Vasya’s awakening as a woman with power, both in the sense of her realizing her Sight and what a curse and blessing it is to her, and in the sense of her coming into her own as a person with ambitions and the desire for self-determination. Arden’s descriptive writing lovingly takes listeners along Vasya growth from girl to woman, and perfectly sets up what’s to come in the sequel.

If you’re looking for a slow-burning fantasy to pass the time during these last days of winter, The Bear and the Nightingale is a great listen. Read more and sample the audio.