I loved Novik’s Temeraire series, although I never actually got around to reading the last few books. So when I heard about this one, a Polish-based, fairy tale inspired story, I was definitely excited. Even more so when Stephanie Burgis said the romance had some similiarities with the Howl/Sophie, Gen/Irene, Peter/Harriet continuum which is my thing, fictional romance wise.
So I bumped this one up the reading list and ended up devouring it. It was a wonderful, engrossing read with lots of layers.
First, it plays with the Chosen One trope in an interesting way. Every ten years, the Dragon–a great magician–chooses a young woman from the valley where he lives to live in his castle. The girls swear that he doesn’t harm them, but after they emerge, they never stay for long. Agnieszka, our narrator, has grown up knowing that her friend Kasia will be the one chosen from their age range, because Kasia is perfect at everything. But at the beginning of the book, the Dragon emerges and chooses Nieshka instead. Part of the aftermath is spent dealing with both Nieshka and Kasia’s complicated feelings of relief and guilt and anger.
But they are truly friends, and the bond between them is tested and reforged throughout the book. It’s as important a relationship to Nieshka as any romance. Her feelings towards Kasia, complicated and complex as they are, drive much of Nieshka’s motivations throughout the story. I really appreciated this, since female friendships are something I want to see depicted more often. I especially appreciated that their friendship remains important through the whole story; it doesn’t disappear when Nieshka comes into her own.
(There are also some interesting mirrors of their friendship later, but I can’t say what they are here because they’re immensely spoilery. Suffice it to say that womens’ relationships are foregrounded in a way that I found realistic and refreshing.)
This is also a coming of age story. This was published as an adult book, but I see no reason that it shouldn’t be heavily promoted as a YA crossover. Agnieszka is seventeen at the beginning, and although a lot of sad, difficult things happen, the book deals with questions of identity and power in a way that seemed very familiar to me as a YA reader.
And in terms of power, this is a book with some fantastic descriptions of magic. In the first place, there’s the fact that Nieshka has been unaware of her own power, and that when the Dragon chooses her, he doesn’t understand the kind of power she has and tries to teach her in ways that are all wrong. Novik writes the shape of each character’s magic in a way that I really loved. Later, when Nieshka learns her own shape and is able to work with other magicians, the descriptions of the way their magics interact is similarly marvelous.
I loved Agnieszka’s voice throughout the book, but for me it ranks up there with Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell in the way it conveys a sense of numinousness and wonder in the descriptions of magic. (Actually, I’m thinking of some interesting parallels between the two books, now.)
One of the things I loved most was the world. It’s–appropriately enough–rooted in the texture of the culture, in both the larger society of Polnya and the smaller circle of the valley where Agnieszka has grown up. It doesn’t have the vague pseudo-medieval feel that too much high fantasy does. Everything, from the food to the clothing and the songs and the mythology underneath, felt of a piece. And I also loved the contrast between the different settings: the warm, homey village where we start out, the threat of the Wood along its edges, the Dragon’s tower with its mysteries and hard-edged beauty, the grandeur and cruelty of the court.
And yes, I did love the romance. I wasn’t sure how this was going to go at first, because of the circumstances. But in the end, the path that Novik shows for these two characters, the way they grow to value and respect each other, to work together in ways that aren’t romantic as well as ways that are, completely convinced me. (And yes, I totally see the Howl/Sophie parallels!)
I’m pretty sure this is going to end up as one of my favorite books of the year. I have said for awhile of the stories I’m drawn to that they are both the trope and the subversion of the trope, and that’s true in this case as well. This is a classic coming-of-age story, with fairy tale echoes and motifs. But it also feels fresh; it feels like it’s taking those motifs and weaving them into something new, saying something that hasn’t quite been said before.
Book source: public library
Book information: 2015, Random House; published adult but great YA crossover