By Naomi Novik
ARC e-book, 448 pages (hardcover)
2015, Del Rey
ISBN: 9780804179034 (hardcover)
I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. All opinions in this post are my own.
From NetGalley: Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life. Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood. The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her. But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.
What I enjoyed more than anything else in this book was the magic system. The magic itself is pretty standard – recite spells and combinations to achieve your desired effect. However, some wizards recite very formally, by the book, with specific pronunciation whereas others may mumble, hum or sing. I haven’t come across any other stories with magicians who discovered they could sing a spell to get the desired result, because standard recitation wasn’t working for them. It was a fun twist.
There are many familiar fairy tale elements woven into this book and I especially enjoyed how Novik hinted at the beginnings of Baba Jaga. The forest and nature and general also play a large part in the tale. At times, I enjoyed these elements – when someone was struggling to free themselves from the curse of the Wood, it was though they were physically battling it, despite the struggle actually taking place mentally. Other times, the constant reference to the evil of the Wood and the roots it put down in people and even the phrase “the Wood” were tiring.
I was a bit puzzled by the genre of this book – it’s obviously fantasy and I’d say it’s mostly young adult, however, there are two sex scenes and I was a bit thrown by the amount of detail involved. I thought it was tastefully done, but I wasn’t expecting it and honestly, the two scenes felt very out of place. They were more graphic than anything I can remember reading in YA, so I’m wondering if this is supposed to be a new adult fantasy? I’m not big on genres but I wanted to put that out there as a warning for potential younger readers.
I had no connection to the characters either. Kasia is the typical blonde, beautiful, well-liked character whereas Agnieszka (which I honestly have no clue how to pronounce and ended up just calling her “Ag” mentally) is the lanky, incredibly clumsy brunette with low self-confidence. I’m tired of these tropes, and though I know they’re prevalent in many works, they seem more common in YA. Ag’s clumsiness is eventually written off via magic, but I still don’t think she had much depth. Sure, she found new ways to solve problems and was incredibly determined, but she still felt very thin. Same with the Dragon – he’s your standard angry, stand-offish tough guy, who eventually reveals himself to be sensitive and caring.
Overall, I was underwhelmed. I’m not sure if my expectations were too high going into this, or if Novik’s writing style just wasn’t for me. Personally, if it turns into a series, I won’t be reading any further. If you’re interested in a semi-new adult fantasy with a heavy focus on nature, check this out.