My oldest daughter read this book early last year, raved about it, and got it on my to-read list. Winning the Nebula sealed it there and moved it much farther up the queue (and part of my annual reading quest each year is to read the winners of the major awards for the previous year). Reading other reviews, apparently this is a love or hate book. I’m neither, but falling on the high side of centre. There were things that I really liked about the book and things I didn’t, but they balance out to a good read.
I’ve grown to like a variety in my mythologies and the moment I read the main character’s name, Agnieszka, if not a little before, I know I’m getting something I haven’t seen often. There’s going to be an eastern European or Russian flavor to this story, and that makes me happy.
That said, I’m not normally much for fairy tales or retellings of them. This isn’t, quite, but it has elements of it. The book does have a fairly slow start and I found the first several chapters a bit on the dull side, predictable, and, honestly, a little underwhelming. Agnieszka comes across as a bit of a stereotype peasant girl from a folk or fairy tale and the Dragon isn’t really all that menacing if he’s supposed to be. There’s a lot of fairly typical story setup here, and I recognize wanting to build the world for your reader, but I’d rather be thrown in off the deep end and figure things out from hints in the narrative as I go.
Rooted in folklore, there’s far more of that eastern European flavor to the story than just names, and it seems more than passing likely that a lot of research has gone into the background and the setting for the story to take place in. Overall, the worldbuilding is wonderful in places and completely lacking in others. Lots of things, like the great enemy nation of Rosya, are just a word. No depth, and nothing more than a distraction from the actual story.
The story does take a long time to build, though, passing through the standard fairytale tropes into a darker place than a lot of modern folks might be used to in those tales. But then, it’s for an older audience, and we should remember that fairy tales were not originally known for sweetness and light.
The magic system doesn’t get a lot of detail, although that’s okay. It mostly seems to consist of very specific words focusing power unless they’re not specific at all. As in you can alter spells by leaving out syllables or mumbling bits of it. And there are two different types of magic, although they’re related and complimentary, one structured and one free flowing.
On the subject of magic, Agnieszka learns too fast, picking up the basics and then figuring stuff out on her own in only a few months. The dragon has been studying magic for a hundred years or more and frequently seems stunned by the things she pulls off. Plus, because she’s sometimes doing a different kind of magic than he is, she leaps ahead of him in certain ways. Doesn’t work that well for me.
The Dragon himself is a bit flat for most of the story. Basically, he’s an arrogant jerk with magic powers who’s divorced himself from the world. He’s kind of disappointing as a character.
And we’re supposed to buy that there’s a romance going on here, too. Romance? Not so much. Almost a bit of Stockholm syndrome going on here until her best friend is in danger. Dragon aside, from hints dropped here and there, I expected, and hoped at times, the romance to build between Agnieszka and her best friend Kasia. That relationship actually had a lot more depth to it even though we spent a lot less time on it.
Not to mention that he’s something like a century and a half old. How does he not consider being with a 17-year-old girl creepy? Wait, she might be 18 by the time that happens. Still creepy.
The Wood, and what we ultimately learn to be at its heart, makes for a fun, creepy adversary, and get some interesting monsters thrown our way, things called walkers that are sort of entish but nastier, and giant mantises. It’s the conflict with the wood in all of its guises that carries things and makes the issues I’m having small enough to pass over while reading.
Overall rating: 4 stars, or thereabouts, rounding up. Not quite low enough to be 3.5. I had problems with the way things worked and worked out, but very much enjoyed the book. I won’t rule out there being a sequel, and it wouldn’t surprise me. There are still some unanswered questions for the heroine. Baba Jaga and the nature of magic spring to mind.by