Disclaimer: My employer, the Bettendorf Public Library, received this book as an ARC for the employees’ personal use. I was not asked to do this review by the publisher, the author, or the library. Any opinions stated in this review are mine alone.
Well, with that out of the way, let’s get down to business.
I hadn’t read any of Naomi Novik’s books before, although I’ve got Temeraire on my TBR list. I grabbed this book purely because I needed something to read at work during lunch. I thought I’d just read a few pages then put it aside for another day.
I got so hooked I could barely put it down. I had to finish it, even though I had three other books and The Prince and The Chronicles of the Fourth Crusade to read for history class. What can I say? I like to live dangerously.
Agnieszka lives in a quiet village on the edge of the Wood, a malicious place that changes those who venture too far in. But her life has other dangers as well. Every ten years, the Dragon, a local wizard who keeps the Wood out of the village, takes a young girl away. Ten years later she returns, claiming no ill treatment but utterly changed, and leaving for other towns and cities shortly afterward. Usually a girl with astonishing talent, beauty, or kindness is taken, and Agnieszka has known all her life that it will be her dear friend Kasia.
To her utter astonishment, she is taken instead. As Agnieszka learns to deal with the coldhearted Dragon, she discovers more about herself, and about the dangers posed by the Wood. It soon becomes apparent that far more is going on than she ever realized.
I have to say, this had me hooked from page one. Agnieszka is an engaging heroine, with plenty of flaws that can be strengths if used right. I really enjoyed the idea of intuitive magic versus learned, rational magic. The interplay was a rather fascinating concept.
The Dragon, too, was an interesting character. While I don’t think his back story quite justifies his behavior, at the very least he is an original take on the typical “brooding hero” trope.
Kasia was also a surprise. She started out as, basically, a not-love interest for Agnieszka to rescue, but wound up becoming a very strong character with a different twist on her story. In fact, the most refreshing part of this was how none of the characters fit into the typical “character roulette”. All of them had some unique, fresh take on something that might have been old since fairy tales. Even the antagonists were very real and understandable.
Therein lies the only problem I saw. I love the idea of the antagonist having a rather good reason for their actions, even if their actions are reprehensible. In my Redwall review, I said that I enjoyed a straight forward good vs. evil story. But I also enjoy stories where the antagonist has been spurred to their actions in some way. Done right, it can make us sympathize with them even while we wish for their defeat. In A Dance with Dragons, Cersei’s walk of shame made me feel genuinely sorry for her, despite everything she had done throughout the books.
The problem comes when such a motivation seems to be revealed out of nowhere. I don’t mind that the antagonist of this book had that kind of motivation, but it wasn’t hinted at anywhere. It was just suddenly dropped on us. While I can see where that can be a bombshell, designed to astonish the reader (and the characters), I felt like it jolted me out of the story a bit. Thus far, the Wood had been a rather creepy, dangerous villain. Right then, all that went out the window for me. I can see that some people would love the twist, but I just couldn’t get into it.
On a better note, the creepy feeling was what really drew me into the book. The Wood is horrifying. The way the book describes its effects when turning people into puppets, and the metaphysical battles with it, had me on edge. The place has giant mantises, for crying out loud! Now, I love me some mantises, but I think giant ones are a bit much. The “Walkers”, too, gave me the shivers.
So, final verdict? This was absolutely amazing. My dislike of the book’s reveal definitely isn’t enough to make me say anything bad about it. I was hooked from beginning to end and now I really want to read more of Novik’s work.