The Bear and the Nightingale
I have, most likely, given The Bear and the Nightingale one of the few low grades you will find for it. I did not do this lightly nor did I do it without reason. Part of it is simply that the book was badly marketed, at least for this reader. Hailed as being like Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, the story is instead a rather mundane telling of a brutal Russian folktale. Rather than a loving and enchanting heroine, who discovers her own power along the way, this tale has the completely commonplace feisty, independent, doesn’t-want-to-marry heroine. In place of a fast paced story full of magic, mystery and romance there is a “literary fantasy” with pedantic prose and a pompous message belonging in some dry, liberal, anti-religion text. On the bright side, it made the other fantasy takes on fairy tales I read the last few months look really good by comparison.
We begin with a messianic birth. Marina asks for a magical child and the Russian gods basically answer by giving her a “special” child whose delivery costs her life. I would normally at this point say “note to self, never ask a Russian god for a baby” but what kind of damned fool would do that anyway? This woman had been raised on the folklore of her people and knew that congress with their gods came at a high price. She had four healthy, beautiful children. There was no need for this baby but she was determined to have it, turned down an abortion her servant offered in order to do so and died for her stubbornness. Picture me with steam coming out of my ears and we are only 5% into the tale.
Vasilisa, the “special” baby, gets along with the hearth gods, loves nature, loves playing like a boy over being a “boring” girl yada, yada, yada denigrating of everything remotely smacking of femininity ad nauseam. She winds up with a step-mother and local priest who want her to stop practicing her old religion and embrace the new, which brings tragedy down on the heads of all until the heroine fixes everything and we all limp to the closure grateful to have survived.
For those that don’t know, Russian folktales are not happy things. The old Russian gods were even less benign than the faeries of European legends and received a lot of their “worship” through the spilling of blood. The stories almost always involve a death of some kind, if not of the hero/heroine then of something/someone else beloved. This book is no exception. Moreover, while European tales often involve the clever outwitting of evil by good, Russian tales straddle a far more gray line. Most often there is no good, whoever wins just wins and justice is not achieved even if some sort of balance is restored. While shades of gray can often make a tale more intriguing, in high fantasy it almost never works. It doesn’t here.
What really turned me off in this tale, though, was the agonizing pacing and its thoroughly modern heroine. The book meanders from one point to the next. This could be because it is based upon the extremely short tale of Morozko and the maiden given to him for his bride, and the longer length doesn’t suit it. But regardless of the reasons why, this thing dragged. Then comes problem two: Vasilisa, our heroine, seems to exist simply as a referendum against the male dominated culture of her time. I don’t like referenda in my novels. I read for entertainment and feel strongly that if you want to write a treatise, non-fiction is the way to go. While it is natural for folktales to include a lesson, a fantasy novel is a different kettle of fish. It can include a lesson but its primary purpose is to engross and delight, not educate. This book felt less like entertainment and more like a reminder that traditional womanhood is bad.
Lest I sound like some kind of antifeminist traditionalist who believes a woman’s place is in the kitchen, let me explain. There is a huge difference between creating an independent, intelligent, powerful female character that inspires readers to roar and writing a book that belittles much that women hold important even today while simultaneously depreciating the roles women of the past held. Many times I feel “feminist” characters empower women less than they idealize men. Their message seems to be that a strong women must be just like a man, and I’ll admit, I take a lot of issue with that.
While the prose in The Bear and the Nightingale is lyrical, that is only one of the elements of fiction. The others, such as the plot – which is painfully lacking in real action – and adventure, and the characters – who were quite stock – had nothing to recommend them. If you are someone who simply likes to read prettily written books or to whom bragging about reading “literary “novels is important, this might work for you. Otherwise, I’d give it a pass.