Author: Naomi Novik
Publisher: Del Ray
Publication Date: 2015
Dragon watches over the valley and helps to keep it safe from the Wood, a corrupted, malevolent power that haunts all who live near. No one enters the Wood; for those who do rarely return. If they are able to escape, their minds and bodies are tainted with such evil that the madness to a threat to all. That is why the law of the land states that those corrupted must be burned. The people of the valley live in fear of the Wood and are thankful for Dragon’s protection; however, he demands a hefty price. Once every 10 years, Dragon descends from his tower and chooses a 17-year-old girl to serve him for 10 years. At the end of their service, the girls are allowed free but none ever want to return to the valley and they seek out a life in another part of the kingdom. Dragon isn’t a monster; he is a wizard.
In the quiet village of Dvernik, Agnieszka lives a simple life. She loves the valley around her but just like all people in the kingdom, she fears the Wood. The Choosing approaches and she is afraid; not for herself, but for her best friend Kasia. Kasia is beautiful and kind; everyone has known that Kasia will be chosen and she has spent her life learning to serve and cook and clean. Her parents have struggled to make her tough and self-reliant in preparation for her future. But, when Dragon comes to choose, Agnieszka is the one he takes. Horrified and unprepared, she is taken to his tower. Although her cooking skills are limited and her cleaning skills non-exist, she possesses an altogether different skill – magic. Dragon criticizes and belittles her as he teaches her the magic skills but soon she discovers that her talents come from an ancient witch whose magic is so old, it is the talk of legends and myths.
When Agnieszka learns that the Wood has taken Kasia, she escapes Dragon’s tower and rushes to try to save her. She is able to get Kasia out of the Wood but she has been corrupted. Asnieszka appeals to Dragon to help her purge the Wood out of Kasia. Although the purge is successful, Kasia will never be the same. When Prince Marek hears of the success, he brings a troop of soldiers to Dragon’s tower and demands his help in rescuing Marek’s mother, who was taken by the Wood twenty years prior. Marek’s request sets off a chain of events that changes the valley, its people, and its landscape forever.
I picked up this book because the inside book jacket sounded intriguing and I like a good fairy tale. I gave the story 50 pages and I was curious; 50 more and I was confused; 50 more and I was obsessed. What an amazing story!! This is not the fairy tales of Disney; this is a Grimm’s type fairy tale at its finest. The combination of evil and wizards and magic and the power of nature all blend together to create a really compelling story. That I like this book is a departure for me as it is not character driven. The characters of Agnieszka, Dragon, Marek, and Kasis are complex, multi-dimensional characters and the Wood itself is both a horrifying, yet laudable character, but the story drives the novel. The novel has the feel of layers of history and legends that storytellers add to over and over as the story is retold; it gives the novel the feel of a myth from old that has been passed down through the generations.
I mentioned that after about 100 pages, I was confused. The author included the barest minimum of exposition as the story began. At first I was frustrated at not understanding how the pieces worked together and what was the purpose of the plot, but then I saw the brilliance of this strategy. As Agnieszka learns about Dragon, the Wood, and the history of the kingdom, so does the reader. I felt like I had similar “a-ha” moments with her and also understood the horrors that could come. As a reader making discoveries with the main character, I became more immersed and accountable for the actions that followed.
Who might like this book:
I have read a lot of fantasy stories and I am always impressed at how authors create new worlds. Although different from the stories of Tolkien and the Harry Potter stories, fans of those series might take a look at this book.
This would be a great book for a discussion group; I think it would be fun to teach this book as part of fairy tale/folklore type unit. It is interesting to see what elements of classic fairy tales are evident and how those are modernized to create a new “ancient” story. The book is a slower read because of the author’s attention to detail. I think it would be fine for young adults to read; I would recommend 14 and up. There is one sex scene, although not graphic in detail, and there are innuendos as to why the Dragon takes the girls. The fight scenes are written beautifully and evoke the horror of battle without over-emphasizing the grotesque.
The author was raised on Polish fairy tales and stories of Baba Yaga. She has also written a series called the Temeraire. It is on my list to check out!