I approached this book with a mixture of heady anticipation and fearful doubts. I absolutely love Novik’s Temeraire series, which, in a nutshell, is an alternate history series speculating on what the Napoleonic Wars would have been like if the countries had dragons to help them fight. Those books are delightful, and I highly recommend them. There are eight books so far in the series, with another one on the way in 2016 (whoop!).
Novik took a break from dragons to write this book, an homage to the Polish/European fairy stories she enjoyed as a child. However, there IS a dragon in it, but this “dragon” is a wizard who protects a small village from the near-by menacing Wood and selects a village girl every ten years, for what exact purpose the Villagers don’t know. As the main character, 17 year old Agnieshka, says in the opening paragraph,
Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would ban together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.
It’s hard to follow up a tremendously successful series, especially one in which the characters are so finely drawn and the voice so singular, as is the case of the Temeraire books. (Temeraire is the name of the dragon who is discovered and raised by the main character, Captain Lawrence). Which is why I was a bit afraid to read this book. It’s been out for a few months, but I was worried I wouldn’t enjoy it as much as the others.
Well, I needn’t have worried. Did I like it as much as the Temeraire books? No, but that’s okay. I still enjoyed it very much. Novik is a wonderful writer, and she pulled me into this world very quickly. It does read like a Grimm’s fairy tale, with wizards and the menacing evil of the Wood hanging over all, and I enjoyed that flavour to it.
The story opens with Agnieshka and the rest of the 17 year old girls getting ready for the feasting day when the Dragon will come from his tower and pick the girl he will take. In this case, everyone assumed that his choice would be Kesia, Agnieshka’s best friend, who is beautiful and graceful, everything that Agnieshka isn’t. But when the moment comes, to everyone’s surprise, it is Agnieshka who is taken.
Agnieshka is an appealing character, clumsy and ill-kempt, but with some spunk to her. I liked her from the get-go, and sympathized with her plight. The Dragon is cold and impatient, especially when he begins to teach her some magic; for the reason he chose her was because, unbeknownst to her, she had magical abilities that the rest of the girls did not have.
I enjoyed the comparison of Agnieshka’s magic to that practiced by the Dragon. Agnieshka’s magic is much more organic and intuitive, while the Dragon’s is logical and mathematical. Novik does a good job of describing the two and their burgeoning partnership as Agnieshka begins to learn her magic under the Dragon’s exacting tutelage.
There are some funny parts to this novel, and some creepy ones as well. This is not a book for younger teens, in my opinion. There are some sexual scenes, which, although tastefully done, are not appropriate for that age. And the scary bits might be quite unsettling to younger readers. For example, here is the description of the Wood:
No one went into the Wood and came out again, at least not whole and themselves. Sometimes they came out blind and screaming, sometimes they came out twisted and so misshapen they couldn’t be recognized; and worst of all sometimes they came out with their own faces but murder behind them, something gone dreadfully wrong within.
Working on intuition and spurred on by her love for her friend, Agnieshka manages to save Keisa when she is captured by the Wood. Her success is not complete – Keisa is changed by her time spent in the Wood, with superhuman strength and other inhuman qualities, but her personality is intact. Because of this success, Agnieshka is roped into a plan to save the country’s Queen from the Wood, who disappeared there some years before.
There is a wider world beyond the confines of the Valley and the Tower, and Agnieshka’s magical abilities involve her in the politics of the country and the people who had only interested her Valley people as fodder for tales and legends. Despite their doubts about the wisdom of doing such a thing, Agnieshka and the Dragon manage to rescue the Queen, but it quickly becomes apparent that something is terribly wrong with her….
I won’t give any more away, for I would recommend this book as one for you to read. It’s a modern-day Grimm fairy tale, with humour, a European flavour, and a romantic element to it as well, although the fact that Agnieshka is only 17 put me off the physical side of the romantic relationship. There is an interesting magic system and a creepy evil to be vanquished, and it’s all done in Novik’s very competent writing style.
I did enjoy this book…..but I really can’t wait to return to Captain Lawrence and Temeraire’s world in League of Dragons, coming sometime in 2016, I understand….