“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 band 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.”
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.
This book has earned itself on my favourites shelf – it was everything I hoped it to be, and more. Seriously – all the stars, and here’s why:
– It’s a fabulous fantasy standalone. While series are great in their own way, I think standalone can be more challenging, because the author has to get the perfect blend of world building, plot and character development – there’s no second instalment in which to expand your world. I think Novik really achieves this here -the world she has created is intriguing and darkly magical with enough depth to satisfy the reader. You can feel the menace of the dark forest oozing from the very pages, and the details she includes contribute to the atmosphere of wariness and later dread that permeate the atmosphere of village life, ever vulnerable to magical menaces. The book also holds great crossover appeal, and readers of both traditional fantasy and YA will enjoy it.
-A strong female protagonist. Agnieszka is capable, brave and clumsy, possessing a fiery independent streak that makes for some interesting situations. She tries to do what is best, without descending into Mary Sue territory. She stubbornly refuses to give up hope, and takes the lead in many incidences, from fighting to fuc- never mind. (There’s a more discrete way to phrase that, I’m sure.) In short, while she has moments of jealousy or anger or loneliness or fear, she’s very much human, albeit gifted, and a joy of a protagonist.
-The Dragon. Who is not really a dragon, but a grumpy immortal wizard with powers. The snark and banter between him and Agnieszka is hilarious at times – I recall a specific moment in the book where they are practising spells and he is trying to get her to use magic to rearrange a pile of books – which she does – but in colour order. This, of course, makes perfect sense to her, but to his orderly, by-the-book mind and methods, this is just outright madness – it’s supposed to be ALPHABETICAL. While an intimidating figure, he takes into account her input and methods, which save their lives more than once on their adventures. In the end, you just want to smooosh the two of them together.
-Sisterhood. The women in this story (those on the same side, anyway) have each others backs. Everything from the reassuring notes and instructions left behind by the previous inhabitants of the tower, to Kasia and Agnieszka’s friendship which involves saving the other time and time again. They are fantastically supportive of each other, and it’s super (and super important) to see.
In short, the action, plot and world building all came together to create a gorgeous tale of love in all its forms, darkness, fighting against the odds, potentially fatal forests, magic, mahem, and a little bit of mystery.