Genre: YA fantasy (it becomes too epic for me to classify it as a fairy tale retelling, which tend to be more contained in scope).
Synopsis: Agnieszka lives in a village on the edge of a dark magical Wood, where monsters creep and from which they occasionally invade. A wizard they call the Dragon protects them from this predatory magic. And every ten years, the Dragon takes away a girl, always the same age. The girls come back at the end of their time, but they never stay, venturing out to find new lives, taking with them a dowry provided by the wizard.
Agnieszka and her best friend Kasia were both born the right age to be chosen by the Dragon. But neither Agnieszka nor her family have any fear of her loss, because everyone knows he’ll choose Kasia. Instead, Agnieszka is ready to mourn the loss of her friend, to hate the Dragon for taking her away…but circumstances intervene, and he chooses Agnieszka. This decision, along with the friendship between the two girls, sets off a chain of events that changes everything. And Agnieszka must fight to make sure those changes save her home rather than destroy it.
Series: I have no idea whether or not it’s a standalone.
POV: First person.
Romance: There’s a subplot–it’s a minor part of the story, but also a bit more detailed than I was expecting from a YA book. I also appreciate that nothing romantic progresses until the characters reach a point where they treat each other as equals.
I received an ARC of this novel from Bookcon (it’ll be out on June 30th), and I was so excited to have this book. The author, Naomi Novik, also wrote an alternate history of the Napoleonic war with dragons that I’m also reading, so I had a certain amount of faith that a veteran writer with these credentials could spin an amazing story, even with a very different kind of novel and a more ordinary (for YA fantasy) premise.
And I was right. This book is awesome. I loved it more and more with each chapter. I’m trying to avoid mentioning spoilers, so I’ll be vague about later stuff.
The story occurs in several stages following one common thread. It begins in a fairly ordinary way, as the plot description suggests, but that’s just the first leg of the journey. The story is so much bigger than that, the Wood is a terrifying and pervasive threat, and the face of the kingdom is changed by the actions of our protagonist by the end. But the story starts simply, and stays true to its roots even as it grows.
It’s not really a Beauty and the Beast kind of tale, though a similar premise sets the events of the novel in motion. This is very much the story of a girl coming into her own individuality, and blazing her own trail.
Agnieszka’s friendship with her childhood friend Kasia is the crux of this story. It pushes the story forward, revealing both their strengths and their weaknesses along the way, demonstrating the strength of their bond. They’re both quite different, but their lives have always been intertwined. They were both Dragon girls, though Kasia was the ideal one, brave and smart and kind. Agnieszka was different, wild. Also kind and brave, sure, but the things that stood out about her were her clumsiness and general messiness.
Their childhoods were defined by the knowledge that Kasia would be taken, and Agnieszka wouldn’t. And that wasn’t foolish of them at all–the Dragon really would have taken Kasia, if not for extenuating circumstances. There’s a wonderful moment where all of the negative feelings both girls have had about this come out of hiding, and need to be accepted. I love Agnieszka, and I love Kasia. Both for different reasons.
While Agnieszka’s relationship with the Dragon isn’t as central to the story as the one with Kasia, these two do form a partnership where they complement each other’s strengths. Eventually. The beginnings of their association are very contentious–the Dragon doesn’t appreciate the same things she does, and it takes him a while to learn to deal with her differences. Even then, I think he does it despite himself–after over a century with a certain view of the world, he’s absolutely flummoxed at Agnieszka’s ways of doing things and even more so at the notion that it could even work.
These characters all have their virtues and their flaws. Nothing is stopping one character from being selfish, inconsiderate, prideful, brave, short-sighted, and caring all in one. I’ve had moments of surprise when a character undercut by one moment is built back up in another–but then that makes sense. Just because we don’t do one thing doesn’t mean we can’t do something else, or do the same thing under different circumstances. Or it doesn’t mean we can’t learn. And just because we succeed in one setting, doesn’t mean we’ll do well in another one. The characters are complex, have complex motivations and self-images. This story relies on character motivations playing off of each other.
As such, the Summoning spell is a perfect tool for the story–it reveals the truth, and time and time again, that changes everything. It serves as a clever way to delve deeply into another character’s perspective and personality for a moment in a first person story. By bringing our narrator there. And it parallels the flow of the story itself. It builds momentum and power as it progresses, carrying the weight of everything that comes before–which is also an apt description of the entire novel.
I also have to love when there’s a reason why one character might live or die in a certain situation, and more than one of these kinds of scenes are beautifully executed. The closing chapter is also immensely satisfying, and how often does that happen?
Excellent, excellent story. I’m debating with myself whether to add it to my standing recommendations list.
I had to turn back to Kasia full of all my messy tangled thoughts and secret wishes, and I had to let her see them, see me, like an exposed pale squirming worm from under an overturned log. I had to see her, bare before me, and that hurt even worse…
“The power in the Wood isn’t some blind hating beast; it can think and plan, and work towards its own ends. It can see into the hearts of men, all the better to poison them.”
I’d made myself a rope of silk dresses and magic to get out, but I couldn’t make him climb out of the window if he didn’t want to.
Wanting cruelty felt like another wrong answer in an endless chain.