The Bear and the Nightingale and the “Religious Nut” plot device

Have you ever read a book that you loved (or thought very highly of) for so many reasons but ultimately have a hard time recommending? Maybe there are some sexy-sexy scenes, or a traumatic plot point too close to the experience of your recommendee, or some other taboo subject that you know will sour the book for someone. This difficulty in spreading the good word about a book goes beyond an acknowledgement that people’s tastes in books vary; it speaks to an uneasy feeling that the book will do more harm than good.

Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale is one of those borderline books for me. There is so much that I enjoyed about the book: the woodsy, wintery atmosphere of the Russian town where the protagonist, Vasya, lives with her family; the magical elements based on Russian fairy tales; the loving family relationships that result in devotion and sacrifice. I understand why it garnered so many starred reviews, and why it was selected by Amazon as a Best Book of 2017.

I just wish one of the major plot points wasn’t the epic battle between Christianity and old world, pagan beliefs, a battle in which Christianity—or at least the embodiment of Christianity in the characters of Father Konstantin and Vasya’s weak-minded stepmother (of course) Anna—is the villain.

I can almost hear what you are thinking as you read this. I agree:

  • A lot of bad has been done in the name of Christianity and other religions.
  • People have used and continue to use religion as a method for controlling others, as a way to be powerful and subjugate the powerless.
  • It’s good for us to be honest about these topics, to look at them square on, and to step outside our comfort zones to challenge our beliefs.

I also agree with book blogger mrphillips, who gave the book 4.25ish stars while acknowledging: “..I find the religious nut plot device frustrating and contrived….”

Yes! Must religious characters be nutty and/or evil??

In How 2016’s movies and TV reflected Americans’ changing relationship with religion, Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson shared what I consider good news:

“One notable trend is a growing interest in taking religious belief to be part of, but not the entirety of, a character’s identity. In other words, religious characters are growing more complex.”

This means characters are more nuanced, less stereotypical. They can believe but have doubts. They can pray and do good works, and still have flaws. You know, like normal humans.

I really liked The Bear and the Nightingale, and I don’t blame Katherine Arden for writing characters who use religion as a weapon (I mean, people do, so there you go). I plan on reading the second book in her Winternight trilogy, The Girl in the Tower, which was released this week. You should read it too, if it won’t poke at an existing ache caused by misunderstanding and stereotype.

P.S. For an interesting take on the dearth of religious characters in YA fiction, check out this BYU student’s research paper on Religion in Young Adult Contemporary Realistic Fiction.

Titles Mentioned

Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning, at no cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

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