• Chai

review: the bear and the nightingale by katherine arden

Updated: Feb 9

A large pleasure in re-reading a favorite book is to experience that sense of almost-newness: to recognize and relive everything again exactly as it was, page by page, and yet to submit, completely and wholeheartedly, to the promise of discovery.

I read The Bear and the Nightingale for the first time in 2018. I finished the whole trilogy in 2019. It was bittersweet; for a year, I had filled my life with this world, these characters, and it was like breathing. When I said goodbye, I was not so much saying goodbye to these books as to the person I was when I read them. The person who is now two cities, three apartments, one bachelor’s degree, several heartbreaks away from me. Most days I don’t miss that person, but I missed this series, quite intensely. I longed to return to this world, to these characters, and the longing was so sharp it drew me right back to the page, as though by some invisible string.

Everything about The Bear and the Nightingale was the same, and it was different, and there was something so utterly intoxicating about that.

So vivid and fierce in my memory was Arden’s beautiful evocation of interminable winter nights and stories told by the hearth, of restless flights into the woods and an insatiable hunger for the unknown, of fire made out of fear and innocence meeting its fate, of encounters that are fraught with chance and a white mare, standing like a faint, far beacon in the darkness. The feeling, too, that I was reading a centuries-old fairytale, something timeless, beyond age. These images, which have been etched for years into the soft flesh behind my eyes, fell on my heart with a burst of recognition. Yet, when I re-read The Bear and the Nightingale, I saw more.

I saw how the book casts visceral lights upon the ways in which faith can be both a balm and a blight, how fear can rule our bodies like the hand of a hidden puppeteer, and how faith and fear, when held intertwined in our hearts, can be sharpened into weapons. I also saw what it means to be hungry down to your delicate bones without realizing it, a hunger to seek, to be seen, to surrender on your own terms. And when I turned that thought around, I realized, with a start, that in this at least, the monstrous and the downtrodden in this book were not dissimilar at all. And I understood why, at nineteen, I fell so helplessly in love with Vasya Petrovna, and so thoroughly sickened by my flashing sympathy for Konstantin Nikonovich.

With every page, the book kept blooming and blooming inside me until there was absolutely no room left for anything else. I remembered the ferocious, sacrificial love of a parent, of a sibling, and it knocked at my heart, this newly invigorated appreciation for all the invisible ribbons of familiarity and love that are woven through our lives, like a net to break our fall. At the same time, I understood that putting yourself first, after a lifetime of loving fiercely, of giving until you’re hollow, is nothing short of a courageous act of radical resistance.

“I will be free, and I will not count the cost.”

I'm always going to be struck, I think, by how much a book can yield upon revisiting it. How a story can be endless in that way, inexhaustible and beckoning. I'm glad I took the hand offered by The Bear and the Nightingale and stepped back into its world. I'm already looking forward to the next time.


Have you read The Bear and the Nightingale yet? If you haven't, please do your heart the gift of picking up this wonderful seriesand thank me later!

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