Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Adult, fantasy
First published: 2015
Author: Naomi Novik
Synopsis: 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.
The first thing I have to say about this book is that it’s beautiful. The writing, the story, the setting, the characters. They’re all beautiful. It made me cry on a couple of occasions.
It’s not often that you see standalone high fantasy novels. It’s hard to balance a standalone fantasy. You need to have rigorous enough world-building that your reader isn’t completely confused, but you also need a story that wraps up nicely and is satisfying and complete. With a series, it’s easier because you’re telling a story over several books. Which makes this book that much more impressive. It’s not even a very long one. Not even 500 pages, which isn’t short, but it’s not massive. And yet it’s so well balanced.
Naomi Novik manages to create a world that is captivating and intriguing and at the same time, deliver a narrative that is layered, intelligent and just all around beautiful. It’s truly masterful writing. I loved the world, I loved the Russian feeling it had to it and I love the magical forest. There’s just something about magical forests that brings me back to the days I spent chasing orcs through Fangorn and taking refuge in Lórien. The magic system is another element that I enjoyed. I liked how different people worked it in different ways. Some were rigid and scientific about it, others were artsy about it and the different styles complemented each other. Much like the real world.
I loved the relationships in this book. I loved the friendship between Agnieszka and Kasia. I love that it had flaws, and hardships. Ups and downs; it was realistic, but it was unfaltering and undying and beautiful. I need more friendships like that in books. I also really liked the dynamics between the Dragon and Agnieszka. Again, it was frustrating, it was hard, it had ups and downs, but it was realistic and it was strong.
I feel like the story has so many layers to it that I can hardly collect my thoughts on it. From commentary on the nature of war, to the complacency of the human condition, to the hatred that fear promotes. It’s a story about roots and what makes a home and how far people will go to protect their home. But ultimately, I think it’s just a story about humanity explored through magic. I don’t feel like I can do the book justice, so just go read it.