The cover of Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale caught my eye at NetGalley. A closer look suggested it wasn’t my kind of book, but then I got several e-mails from the publisher suggesting I try it. They compared Arden to Robin Hobb, and Hobb herself blurbed the book, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Guess which of us was right.
The book draws on traditional Russian fairy tales, and that’s its downfall in a nutshell. The stiff, mannered voice that seems quaint in a fairy tale is wearing at book length. Constructions like “in arguing, pleading, and speculation, the evening passed” lose their charm fairly quickly. By a few chapters in, I was already tired of the voice, and of the thin characters that might have worked in a short story.
Arden adds color by including occasional Russian phrases. Happily, I speak Russian, but even so I found the additions more irritating than interesting. As Arden herself admits in an afterword, she’s inconsistent in her transcription and usage. I think most readers won’t benefit from the distinctions between, e.g., devachka and devushka, and I simply didn’t see a logic to the language.
The setting, deep in the Russian woods does feel credible, though the characters don’t work as well. The story takes places in a prior century, but that doesn’t entirely excuse some of the attitudes. “Long-limbed for a girl”, “he kissed her until defiance turned to passion”, etc. There’s not a lot of this, but I found it unappealing, especially because the characters are so shallow. The story’s turns to politics in the second section doesn’t help, though it does recover somewhat at the end, with a return to relationships and magic.
I still like the cover, and it seems clear that Arden is a capable writer, but for this story, she’s equally clearly chosen the wrong approach. I found the voice stiff, and the story relatively tedious. Even for Russophiles, I can’t recommend it.