I’ve been a little bit neglectful – I finished this series several weeks ago, but I’ve only now found the time to write about it. I was actually spurred on a bit by the announcement of the Hugo Award nominees, where I discovered that the author, Katherine Arden, has been nominated for a John W. Campbell Award for the second year running.
So I felt now would be a good time to finish my write up. It’s no wonder that Arden has been nominated again, and although the competition looks incredibly tight this year, I believe there is an excellent chance she’ll come away as the winner – because The Winternight Trilogy is a fantastic set of works.
Very minor spoilers ahead:
Half fairytale and half historical fiction, The Bear and the Nightingale is set in the 1300s in what is now modern-day Russia. Vasillia (Vasya for short) is the fifth child of a minor lord, whose mother dies in childbirth. But before dying, Vasya’s mother tells her father that just like her and her mother before her, Vasya will be special. And sure enough, as a young child, Vasya develops a gift for seeing domovoi and other pagan spirits. Her behaviour, although odd, is mostly seen as harmless, until after a night lost in the forest, she comes back telling strange stories of a one-eyed man. It’s at this point that her father decides she is dire need of a mother figure in her life and remarries.
While not exactly the most wealthy of lords, Vasya’s father Pyotr is not without powerful connections, and after some politicking, weds the daughter of the Grand Prince of Moscow. Like Vasya, Anna has some magical ability and can also see sprites and spirits. Unlike her stepdaughter, however, Anna is highly pious, to the point she once contemplated spending her life in a convent. While Vasya embraces her gifts, Anna is positively terrified of the ‘demons’ she sees and perceives them to be a threat to her faith.
This conflict between stepmother and daughter could have simmered away unnoticed if it weren’t for the arrival of a charming young priest sent from Moscow, Father Konstantin. The old pagan ways start to fall away as the town embraces Father Konstantin’s fire and brimstone preaching. Unfortunately for the townsfolk, and for Vasya, this culture of prejudice and fear starts weakening the local spirits. Except one – the one-eyed Medved – who thrives off fear and chaos.
And his brother, Morozko, has taken an interest in Vasya.
While admittedly the slowest in the series – we don’t learn of the identities of either of the title characters until late into the book – The Bear and the Nightingale is by no means a difficult read. Arden’s writing is atmospheric, descriptive, and an absolute joy, making the journey almost as pleasurable as the resolution. And despite the first book’s obvious fairy-tale scaffolding, it never falls into fairy-tale simplicity. The world building gives the pastoral setting very grounded, realistic feel; and the story is very character driven, with a strong emphasis on familial love and duty.
While the first book could almost be read as a stand-alone, the core conflict continues seamlessly in The Girl in the Tower and later, The Winter of the Witch. Here, the scope of the story becomes more immense, with much of the action moving to Moscow. And not only does Arden start incorporating other characters from Russian mythology (yes, Baba Yaga does eventually make an appearance), she starts tying the story into greater historical events as well, such as Grand Prince of Moscow’s conflict with the Golden Horde. Compared to The Bear and the Nightingale, both of the later books move at a much more rapid pace. But as a trade-off, the tone shifts more towards historical fantasy, and away from the dark fairytale atmosphere of The Bear and the Nightingale.
While I could carry on about how well put together The Winternight Trilogy is for ages, I’m really reluctant to do so as I would risk giving away too much of the plot. But I can’t help but let one spoiler slip out, as he’s one of the title characters, and I can’t go through a review of the whole trilogy without mentioning him once.
The Nightingale is named Solovey. And he is delightful and precious and my most loved character in the entire story. And if Arden takes the John W. Campbell Award this year, hopefully more people will become acquainted with him.