My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is my second five-star read of the year. I think I like this better than Elizabeth Bear's Karen Memory
, and I've been raving about that to whoever would listen. Bear's book is an exhilarating, fun romp with a memorable cast of characters. This book, while it does have its comedic moments (especially in the beginning, with the clash of personalities between our protagonist Agnieszka and the wizard), is much darker. So much so, in fact, that while the protagonist is seventeen, and on the surface you might think the book is for young adults, I wouldn't give it to a younger teenager to read. Especially in the final third of the story, all the carefully woven plot threads explode into a heart-attack-inducing burst of action. There are fights, often gruesome deaths, fleeing, on-the-edge-of-your-seat rescues, a magical siege of a tower that rivals anything Tolkien produced, and a final desperate trek into an antagonist as unique as anything I've read in ages--the poisonous, sentient, killer Wood.
Let's put it this way: This is not a Disneyfied fairy tale, and it's definitely not for the faint-hearted.
Our heroine is Agnieszka (pronounced Ag-NYESH-kah according to the Author's Note). She is an endearingly klutzy young girl who, by virtue of the year of her birth, has to participate in the ten-year ritual of the Dragon-born. The Dragon is the wizard who protects the valley where Agnieszka lives from the Wood, the magical forest on the border between Agnieska's country and the next. There is a great deal of backstory to this Wood, woven in so expertly that it never slows the story down, and indeed this backstory emerges as the prime driver of the plot. (Naomi Novik's worldbuilding for this book is just fantastic. I am in awe.) Agnieszka is not particularly worried about the Dragon's choosing, because everyone knows that the wizard will take her best friend, Kasia, an accomplished blond beauty who stands in stark contrast to Agnieszka's clumsy untidiness. Of course, as soon as I say that, y'all know what happens, don't you? The Dragon comes, tests all the girls...and chooses Agnieszka instead.
Thus begins the epic journey of Agnieszka learning she is a witch, albeit an intuitive, unconventional one who thoroughly offends the Dragon's notion of what a magic worker should be. The Dragon, whose name we later learn is Sarkan, is the epitome of a scowling, grumpy wizard shouting at everyone, "Get off my lawn!" He comes across a bit nasty at first, yelling at poor lost Agnieszka, whose world has just been turned upside down. But the deeper we get into the story, and the more we learn about the Dragon's task--guarding the valley, and the entire country, from the gradual encroachment of the Wood--the more sympathy we feel for him. His job is one I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy, and he is the only one who can do it. This naturally does not inspire a personality of sweetness and light.
The antagonist here, the Wood, is a stroke of genius. Not a person per se, but a magical forest on the far edge of the valley. This forest spits out monstrous mutated animals, and drags people inside either to their deaths, or to be swallowed up by evil heart-trees, or releases them filled with a corruption that leads the victims to murder. The Wood's brooding, malevolent presence is one of the scariest things I have read in a long time, and it rings true on every page. (And for the contrarian who asks, "Why in the hell don't all the people in the valley just leave?"--that is dealt with. Turns out, there is a good reason.)
Because Agnieszka is a witch, she has to team with the Dragon to fight the Wood. There is a great deal more to this layered, complex plot, which is why the book is 435 pages long. None of it is boring, and all of it is stupendously well-written. We have the power of female friendship (Agnieszka and Kasia), Agnieszka's love for her family and her love for the valley (it's her home and she's not leaving); court politics; war; a back-burner romance between Agnieszka and the Dragon; and finally, after the Wood's final defeat, Agnieszka's finding her purpose and her place. She will stay in the valley and she will heal the Wood, even if it takes all of her very long witch-life.
This is one reason why, for me, the ending was so satisfying. The Dragon leaves for the Capital to mop up the mess (to put it mildly; mass slaughter was involved, which is why this book is so dark) the Wood made of the king's court, and Agnieszka doesn't know when, or if, he is coming back. No matter: she has her job, the gradual cleansing of the Wood, and she is not at all dependent on the Dragon. Then the Dragon, all grumpy prickly mortification, returns.Happiness was bubbling up through me, a bright stream laughing. He'd come back. "When did you arrive?"
"This afternoon," he said stiffly. "I came to receive the taxes, of course."
"Of course," I said. I was sure he'd even gone to Olshanka for the tribute first, just so he could pretend that was the truth for a little bit longer. But I couldn't really bring myself to pretend with him, not even long enough for him to get used to the idea; my mouth was already turning up at the corners without my willing it to. He flushed and looked away; but that wasn't any better for him, since everyone else was watching us with enormous interest, too drunk on beer and dancing to be polite. He looked back at me instead, and scowled at my smile.
"Come and meet my mother," I said. I reached out and took his hand.
This ending was just perfect. The enemy has been defeated, and if there is still rebuilding to be done, you know these people's lives will go on, and there is every reason to hope those lives will be happy ones.
This book is simply marvelous. It's beautifully written, the magic system is unique, the worldbuilding is wonderful, and the characters are pitch perfect. It's my best read so far this year.View all my reviews