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, ambitious wizard, known only as the Dragon, to keep the wood’s powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman must be handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as being lost 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 no one can predict how or why the Dragon chooses a girl. And when he comes, it is not Kasia he will take with him.
From the author of the Temeraire series comes this hugely imaginative, engrossing and vivid fantasy novel, inspired by folk and fairy tales. It is perfect reading for fans of Robin Hobb and Trudi Canavan.
Source: ARC from Pan Macmillan via NetGalley
I’ve been a huge Temeraire fan for years, so I was curious to see what Naomi Novik could come up with beyond the world of Napoleonic dragons, even if the Dragon in this book might not actually have scales. And he doesn’t (so if you’re hoping for more Novik dragons, you may be disappointed), he’s just a man – albeit an seemingly immortal one with magic. Instead of turning history on its head, this book takes all those darkly delightful Eastern European fairytales and goes rampaging through the dark wild wood.
Agnieszka isn’t the most beautiful or brilliant girl in the world (or even her village), but she is brave and smart and capable, and not the least bit afraid of challenging things she doesn’t understand. She lives in the valley of the River Spindle, right up close to the Wood, from which all kinds of magical nastiness seeps. If it wasn’t for the overlordship of the Dragon, the whole valley would have been swallowed up long ago. That doesn’t mean Agnieszka has to like him, though.
Because the Dragon is not a man who wants to be liked. He’s antisocial and strange and mysterious and slightly frightening, but although Agnieszka is at first intimidated by him, it doesn’t take her long to grow familiar with his odd ways. I loved how their relationship developed and changed across the story, from him being all disdainful and over proud, while she cowered and flinched away, through various stages of mutual contempt to a strange kind of friendship, and ending up with a wonderful balance between their wildly differing strengths.
I really loved the characterisation of Sarkan. He’s not the easiest man to get to know, being stuffy and proud and disdainful and overly fond of beauty, but he’s quite catlike. I loved how often he was bewildered or affronted by the things Agnieszka does as she bumbles around him and how, despite his fastidiousness, they somehow reach and accord. And I really loved Agnieszka’s magic. She reminded me of Cat Chant from Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series – struggling with the small, simple things, while at the same time capable of great instinctive magics that often connect with nature.
The plot itself is great and grand, with royalty and wars and ancient evils, not to mention lifelong friends, uncomfortable truths, disapproving society and the joys of learning and magic. Like any good fairytale it draws you in almost against your will and holds you close until you reach the end. Even better, Agnieszka is no weak damsel in need of a strong man to rescue her. She has strengths of her own and is more than capable of rescuing others as well as herself. Not that she doesn’t make mistakes, because she certainly does, but she’s also willing to do everything she can to correct them. She’s a great lead character and I thoroughly enjoyed following her through the story. It helps that the Wood is a constant, dark, creeping menace that permeates everything, making it hard to know sometimes who is friend or foe.
Delighting in old folktales and the fears of the deep, dark wood, with great characters and a sweeping plot, this is a fine fantasy adventure for anyone who enjoys fairy tales. If you like strong female characters too, you will love this (Sarkan is pretty much the only competent man in the entire book), and though there is a hint of romance it’s not so strong as to put anyone off if that isn’t your thing. Clever and compelling, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
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