Devourer of books with a preference for fiction. Quite good at competitive reading. Happily hoards books of all kinds. Gets stabby going too long without reading.
Disclaimer! I got this as an ARC through NetGalley in return for a fair and unbiased review.The book is available now.
Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.
Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its power at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman to be handed over to him every ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.
The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows - everyone knows - that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things that Agnieszka isn't, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.
But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.
While this remarkable novel by Naomi Novik isn't actually a retelling of some traditional fairy tale, it feels like it should be. The book moves slowly, thoroughly establishing the sleepy little environment Agniezka and Kasia live in, with the terrors of the slowly encroaching Wood so close by. Once someone disappears in the Wood, they will hopefully stay lost. Should they return, they are like creatures possessed spreading its malevolent influence. It's because the dangers that threaten them constantly that the villagers accept having to sacrifice a young woman to the mysterious and reclusive wizard who lives in the tower nearby. He keeps them for ten years, when they return to their families briefly, apparently unharmed but inevitably changed. They never seem content to stay in their home villages, usually going to the capital, rarely to return.
The Dragon always chooses the most promising and accomplished of the women, and so everyone in the area are expecting Kasia to be the next young woman to be taken. It's a huge surprise to everyone, not least Agnieszka, when she is the one selected to go with the wizard. She barely gets time to say good bye to her loved ones before the Dragon sweeps her away. Now, terrified and confused, because while the women who return from the Dragon's service always appeared healthy and unmolested, there were always rumours. They lived alone with a man for a decade after all. The impatient and surly wizard seems completely uninterested in her physically though, and after finding a note from a previous occupant of her room, Agnieszka is relieved that she won't be molested in any way. She tries to follow the orders of her new master, but because the Dragon isn't exactly very clear in what he actually wants, it takes her quite a while to understand that he's trying to teach her magic, and his lessons are not going as expected. It's only when she finds the dusty spell book of a legendary witch that she seems to get the magic to work for her.
At first the Dragon doesn't believe that Agnieszka's brand of magic could have any effect. Only after several attempts does it become clear that his way of using magic is more intellectual and book based, while Agnieszka's is more emotional and intuition based. As the threats from the Wood become greater, it's clear that they need to find a way to work together. One terrible day, when the Dragon is called away to deal with a crisis, Agnieszka receives word that her village is being threatened as well. When she discovers that her dearest friend Kasia has been taken by the creatures of the Wood, she risks everything to rescue her. Now she needs to find a way to free her friend from the Wood's influence, even if such a task has always been believed to be impossible.
To begin with, Agnieszka seems like one of those women who only seem to exist in fiction, too clumsy for words and completely out of her element. We are told that while Kasia is all that is beautiful, talented, graceful and accomplished, Agnieszka can't go through a single day without getting her clothes torn or stained or in some way screwing things up. No one expects her to be the next woman to go with the Dragon. She is terrified and confused, unclear about her duties and feels absolutely horrible from the simple spells the Dragon makes her do. Because he's more than a century old, used to girls with more aptitude for magic (because that's what he does, he trains them in magic so they can help him keep the Wood from taking over more of the area), he's not used to having to explain his methods or motivation. He is also appalled when Agnieszka explains to him what everyone in the surrounding villages believes is his ulterior motive for selecting the girls.
Because Agnieszka has always been unfavourably compared to Kasia, and is so completely unable to grasp the tenets of the Dragon's magical spells, she, like everyone else underestimates herself greatly. It takes time for her to realise that she has value and gifts of her own and that she is has a gift for magic, just not one that has been seen in the country for a long time. She truly begins to find her strength and powers when her best friend is threatened. Doing the impossible, she rescues Kasia from the Wood and refuses to give up on her. In the process, she is also forced to examine her feelings of inadequacy and jealousy towards her dear friend, because even best friends aren't always charitable in the ways they think of one another, and there will always be times when we are jealous, insecure and petty. Moving through and past this, Kasia and Agnieszka's friendship is changed, but stronger as a result.
In the second act of the book, so to speak, Agnieszka has to leave the world she's always known, as well as the safety of the Dragon's tower and go to the capital, to deal with political intrigue, other wizards and discovers that the sinister forces that control the Wood are present even there and bent on causing destruction and havoc not only in her home country of Polnya, but also the neighbouring country. Because of Agnieszka's miraculous rescue of Kasia, the youngest prince of Polnya is determined to reclaim his mother, the missing queen, who allegedly ran away with her lover nearly twenty years ago. They both disappeared in the Wood. Is what they rescue from the forest, at terrible loss of life, truly the lost queen, or something much more sinister?
The last third of the book got a bit wearying, with what felt to me to be unnecessary and repetitive violence and finally a rather puzzling explanation of what the motivation behind the terrifying force of the Wood actually was. I can't stress enough how creepy and sinister I felt the Wood and its many "minions" was. It's such a great villain, for all that it's not one thing, but this seemingly unstoppable and relentless force, with feral wolves, giant preying mantises, evil trees and other monsters at its disposal. Still, I got a bit tired and confused towards the end, just wanting things to wrap up.
Overall, this is such a great read, with Agnieszka as a wonderful heroine at its centre. Her friendship with Kasia is heartwarming and her slowly developing powers and confidence feels empowering in all the right ways. The medieval style kingdoms felt extremely real and the whole story feels as if Naomi Novik found some treasure trove of old Eastern European fairy tales and just reinterpreted them. There is a romantic subplot in the book as well, and one of my other complaints, along with the dragging last third of the book, is that the romance isn't more fully developed. It has so much promise, damn it, and I felt cheated that there wasn't more of it. The only thing I'd read by Novik before this, was Temeraire (or His Majesty's Dragon, as it's also known). While that didn't appeal to me that much(even with dragons, there was too much military history, not my thing), this was great. For anyone with an interest in fairy tale narratives with strong, female friendship at its core and some real horrors to be overcome before there is a chance at a HEA, this is a book for you.