This post contains affiliate links for which I may receive compensation. You can click here to read my full FTC Affiliate Disclosure policy.

Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale

by | May 12, 2023 | Book Reviews, Fantasy, Fantasy, Young Adult

Rating: 4/5 stars
Age Rating: 13+

The moment I opened The Bear and the Nightingale, the first in the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden, I was transported into the most mesmerizing fairy tales. Arden’s writing was so immersive that I could almost feel the frosty winter air, hear the spirits, and visualize the villagers’ humble wooden huts.

This is a story of frost and magic, where science fiction and fantasy intertwine with the ordinary. This book isn’t just about surviving. It’s also about bravery, the battle between old and new beliefs, and a young girl trying to understand her unique powers. As Vasya deals with these religious and political changes, she realizes how vital her powers are and what she might have to give up because of them.

Katherine Arden’s lyrical prose paints an immersive picture of a world of snowy forests, whispering spirits, and ancient gods. The Bear and the Nightingale, full of folklore and fantasy, will enchant readers and make old legends feel fresh and vibrant.


The Bear and the Nightingale is a captivating novel that takes readers on a journey through a mystical world steeped in Russian folklore and magic. The book is the first in a trilogy that follows the adventures of Vasilisa Petrovna, also known as Vasya, a young girl with a unique ability to communicate with the spirits of the forest.

The novel is set in a remote Russian village on the edge of the Russian wilderness, where life is hard, and the winters are long. Morozko, the frost demon or the Winter King, is present in the winter elements – the icy winds and the snowflakes – subtly reminding everyone of the persistent power of nature and the old beliefs. The villagers rely on the spirits of the forest to protect them from the harsh elements and to ensure a bountiful harvest.

Vasya is a young girl beloved by the spirits of the forest. But when her mother dies, her widowed father brings home a new wife. Her stepmother is a devout Christian woman who is afraid of the spirits and forbids the old rituals that honor them. As a result, the spirits start to wreak havoc on the village, causing crops to fail and livestock to die.

Vasya is the only one who can see and communicate with the spirits, and she knows that she must act quickly to save her family and community. But as she tries to navigate the political and religious tensions of the era, she realizes that her powers may not be enough to stop the forces that threaten to destroy her world.

As Vasya faces pressure from the Grand Prince of Moscow and societal expectations for her gender, she finds a companion in Morozko. Their developing relationship adds depth to the story and hints at a bond that may unfold in the following trilogy books. Morozko respects Vasya’s independence and guides her in understanding her powers, which highlights the feminist elements in the story.

As Vasya faces danger and betrayal, she must confront her fears and doubts. She discovers that her powers come with a heavy price, and she must decide whether she is willing to pay it to save the people she loves.

Russian Folklore and Magic

One of my favorite aspects of this book was how it introduced me to the world of Russian folklore. The spirits and gods that Vasya encounters, rooted in authentic mythology, are beautifully woven into the narrative. They’re woven so effortlessly into the storyline that they seem familiar, like characters from a childhood story.

Take the domovoi, for instance. This charming household guardian, content with offerings of freshly baked bread, is cared for by Vasya and Dunya, a loving old nurse who helped raise Vasya. The domovoy is just one of the many magical creatures in Arden’s book. Still, his presence is as comforting and familiar as the warmth of a home hearth. He embodies the simple rituals that connect us to our past, and his relationship with Vasya is a beautiful testament to the respect and kindness we should extend to all beings, seen or unseen.

The magic in this book doesn’t steal the spotlight; instead, it’s a quiet presence that permeates the narrative. Vasya has this special bond with the natural world, allowing her to talk to animals and perceive extraordinary things. As she delves deeper into the realm of spirits and magic, she learns to hone her unique abilities, all in a bid to protect her village and those she cares for.

Every spirit and creature is distinct and intriguing, from the house-protecting domovoy to the rusalka, a slightly less benevolent water spirit. The world of folklore and magic in the book is rich and layered, and it’s easy to lose yourself in its complexity and depth, and that’s part of what makes the book so enjoyable.

My Review

Stepping into The Bear and the Nightingale was like walking into a richly woven tapestry of a dark and enchanting fairy tale – full of magic, a wicked stepmother, and a hint of potential romance. It explores the struggle between old traditions and newer beliefs, the importance of stories, and women’s societal roles.

I loved seeing when Vasya loves the story of the frightful Morozko and then watching as this blue-eyed winter demon enters her life. It was an interesting dynamic as he was present but never too involved. The interplay between them was captivating – a dance on the edge of danger, teetering between warmth and frost. Morozko is a character shrouded in paradox, swaying between acts of kindness and moments of cruelty. Their dynamic was a real page-turner, and though I loved the simmering tension, I couldn’t help but hope for more depth in their relationship.

Throughout the story, Vasya learns to trust herself and use her strength to protect her loved ones. Even when the villagers turn against her, or when she has to face powerful spirits, Vasya doesn’t back down.

The Bear and the Nightingale is an excellent exploration of the clash between tradition and modernity. It showcases the tension between old pagan beliefs and the newer Christian faith. The book also highlights the power of storytelling and the importance of keeping traditions alive. This book is a beautiful escape that offers more than just cozy vibes and engaging characters – it’s a testament to the magic of stories themselves.

If you found this review helpful, you can check out the book at Bookshop.org here and support local bookstores along the way!