The Book Itself: Very spellbook-like, old-fashioned, distressed. Sets a great tone for the book and story!
My Review: 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 powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for 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 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.
Note: that’s a real name! I was completely ignorant of this fact, until I was reading a magazine article the week I read this book and saw the exact same name! It’s pronounced ag-nee-eshh-kuh. The more you know!
A friend of mine from work read this as an ARC and pushed it into my hands. “I loved it,” she said. “And I need to know if it’s just me, or if it really is a great book.”
It really is a great book. I haven’t read any of Novik’s other work — she writes a dragon series that’s pretty dang popular — but reading this standalone novel was very enjoyable. The description up there is quite literally only the beginning. The subject matter it deals with is covered in the first 25 pages or so. The rest of it is a twisty-turny, magic-system-building ride.
The story gains strength with the help of two kinds of enemy: human and magical. There is an army opposing the kingdom in the distance, and a deadly forest doing unexplainable, horrible things to the town folk at home. Our friend Agnieszka is thrown in the middle, hearing details about both opposing forces from her surly captor, the Dragon.
She is to learn magic by his side, and does so…but on her own terms. She discovers that his teachings don’t work with the way she comes to know magic. Instead, a book only she really understands shows her a new magical method. I liked that her method was unique to her. She could build on it with others (with the help of the Dragon’s spellcasting, they learn a way to hold some of the forest’s dark magic at bay), but only she really understood it. It made the magic system seem more personal, more subjective.
The scuffles with the woods build up in a tense and convincing way. Stakes and tensions rise to a fever pitch, and you think when they lead a rescue party into the wood, it’s the grand finale — horrible things happen to the men inside, and it’s brilliantly written — but it’s actually just the beginning.
So. It’s a unique magic system. Spells are cast with a kind of rhythmic chanting/singing/collaboration. The enemies and skirmishes are brilliantly plotted. You flip flop between who is the worst adversary. In the last few pages, the book completely changes your tune. Agnieszka and the Dragon as characters are convincing and pretty likable (you also root a little for them to get together, so there’s that). Some of the secondary characters, despite their frequent use, don’t come across as well rounded or fleshed out — the crown prince and Agnieszka’s best friend, Kasia, in particular. But it’s an awesome book. I felt depleted when it ended, like it took something out of me to see it end.
So give it a try, should you enjoy fantasy. It’s a great one 🙂
My Grade: A