Tuesday 28 November 2017

The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden

A few thoughts on Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale

I haven’t read too much of recent Fantasy, but I was interested in The Bear and the Nightingale. Part of this was the number of positive reviews it was getting everywhere on twitter and in the popular sites.

But more importantly, for me as an Indian reader, was the connection to Russian folk tales, which is the starting point for Arden’s fantasy universe here. You see, most Indian kids of the 80s have read and treasured those subsidized books from Progress Publishers and Raduga Publishers - “Ukrainian Folk Tales” and “The Little Straw Bull” and “Vasilisa the Beautiful” and any number of others. We all know about Baba-Yaga and about characters like Masha and Sasha and Misha and large Russian ovens and so on. Even the very typical translated-from-Russian language from those books will strike a chord.

I’m glad to report that Arden has nailed that tone in her book. In general, her language is excellent and brings the atmosphere through.

I’m also happy to say that the very slow transition from the normal-sounding world in the beginning of her book, to the fantasy one, chapter by chapter, is even better done. You’re eased into the various supernatural elements, with no overt explanation but with enough context to understand what’s going on. By the time you’re two-thirds through the book, you’re well set in this new place that’s actually different from what those old fairy tales talked of.

And a very cool world it is. <SPOILER> There are creatures that surround us, taking care of small parts of our lives - the kitchen, the stables, the lake - and they only require our belief to sustain themselves. But there are more powerful creatures abroad - Death/Sleep, Chaos - and their balance gets disrupted from time to time. And in the middle of that disruption is our heroine, Vasilisa. Fortunately, she has the second sight and is able to converse with various domestic sprites, help and be helped by them. She’s going to need her abilities if she has to save her home. <END SPOILER>

Vasilisa - Vasya - is a powerful heroine. The idea of a woman beyond her time, not built to be caught up in the inevitable grind of household and child-bearing, and yet affectionate to her family, is not new, but it has been done really beautifully here.

Where the book suffers a little, is in not following the fairy tale template closely enough. There is a climactic battle, similar to other modern fantasy books, there are creatures on both sides of it, noble people must lose their lives, and the heroes must escape mostly unscathed. It’s a bit of a climbdown from the sharp, terse climaxes of fairy tales where a quick application of the wits, or maybe a sword, is enough to close out the tale. But the slow buildup here, perhaps, requires a fitting climax.

It turns out that this is the first in a trilogy. I will probably be reading the further parts when they come out, hoping the minor flaws in the first part mean nothing in the broader scheme of things. 

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