Katherine Arden – The Bear and the Nightingale (Del Rey, 2017).
Writers, especially experimental ones, complain of the professionalism bestsellers. Like Hollywood movies, we associate them with plots that are too standardised, writing that is too accessible, and an approach that doesn’t take risks.
Yet the biggest bestsellers aren’t like this at all. Dan Brown’s sentences are horrible. Philip Pullman’s plots are desperately overcomplicated. E.L. James somehow turned low-grade pornography into a multimillion dollar empire. None of them could be charged with being cynically over-professional.
Happily, there is no predicting a hit.
The reason I say this, is so that you don’t misunderstand my praise for Katherine Arden’s debut novel, The Bear and the Nightingale. The terms on which I love this book are the stuff of pure bestsellers. It is pacey, exciting, crystal clear in its prose, and filled with short sentences and concise paragraphs. It features archetypical characters in traditional storylines and just the right level of history and fantasy for the reader to indulge in escapism.
It is the story of Vasya, daughter of Pyotr, a rural boyar and cousin of the Russian Prince. Vasya is blessed with the sight; an ability associated with witches that allows her to see the world of spirits and demons resident within the forest. Living on the outskirts of society, she grows up as a friend to the spirits and rejects both marriage and the convent.
Morozko, Spirit of Winter, lays claim to Vasya as his future bride. The charismatic priest, Konstantin, arrives at the farmstead at the very same time, with a plan to exorcise the woods of their spirits. And so begins the fairy tale.
Arden perfectly balances the duelling narratives. Konstantin the Christian versus Vasya of the Old Gods. Vasya’s friendly spirits against the malicious agents of the Great Bear.
Every scene moves us forward, carrying us effortlessly into a complex world without ever pausing for exposition. The final scenes of the novel may take place in a fantasy setting, but so subtle is Arden’s unravelling of this story that it is only in retrospect that I realised I was reading a full-blown fantasy novel.
Reviewers have so far drawn the obligatory parallel to Carter, particularly Nights at the Circus, but for the first half of the novel I felt it closer in style to the historical novels of Nick Brown or Bernard Cornwall. Arden places you directly into the Prince’s court in the era of the Golden Horde, and convincingly conveys life in the deep northern woods.
When the fantasy elements do enter, they come in the guise of folktales and the ancient religion of the Rus. Arden explains in her afterword that she has taken considerable liberties in her translation of Russian nomenclature. The translation is entirely on the side of readability over authenticity, and it works perfectly.
The final result is an adventure that I found totally enthralling, and I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to recommend it to a friend. It is a quick read, and uncomplicated, but smuggles some potent ideas in beneath its fast-paced surface. Questions of modernity and tradition, the Old Gods and the new.
Arden’s book is by no means obscure, but it is not a blockbuster. Perhaps she will achieve this rare and ambiguous credit with a future work, but for now her debut is finding success on its own terms.
If you’re looking for a break from Booker Prize-longlisted difficulty, but can’t face the usual fare that cycles through the top 10 bestsellers lists, I can’t recommend The Bear and the Nightingale enough. You will have fun, but it might stay with you too.
– Joe Darlington