By Naomi Novik

As regular readers may know, I’ve quite enjoyed Naomi Novik’s Temeraire novels, and when I heard about her newest standalone novel it piqued my interest. And from the first few lines it held that interest:

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 is a strong-willed but almost preternaturally clumsy young woman from the village of Dvernik, which sits just outside the edge of a dark, enchanted Wood which constantly threatens to expand and swallow the village. The village is protected by a wizard known as the Dragon, who in return requires the village to send him, once every ten years, a seventeen-year-old girl who will move to his tower and be his servant. A decade later she is given a purse of silver and sent on her way, to be replaced by the next girl. Agnieska grows up knowing that she will be seventeen in the year of the Dragon, but also knowing that the Dragon will surely take her beautiful, graceful friend Kasia instead. Only that isn’t how it works out; when the Dragon does come, he chooses Agnieszka, and beyond being merely his servant, she becomes his apprentice.

The story fans out from there, moving from a light, fairly comic beginning to a harrowing climax, finally coming to a warm, lyrical close. All of these descriptions are things that can be applied to different types of fairy tale, from the modern, Disney-style take to the more traditional, darker, Old-World style, and Novik draws from all of those, blending them into a very satisfying story. In her author’s bio, Novik describes herself as a first-generation American raised on Polish fairy tales, and there’s a definite Eastern European flavor to this story, from the names and places to the general tone. It’s markedly different from the Napoleonic-era Britan-with-dragons she presented in Temeraire, but while both settings are enchanting, this one feels more personal.

It’s nice, too, to see a modern writer taking on the fairy tale genre but doing so in a way that explicitly challenges the problematic gender tropes we’re all so used to. There’s a clear parallel to Beauty and the Beast, for example, but without all of the weird Stockholm Syndrome that somehow everyone seems to find so romantic. It was quite refreshing in that respect.

I ended up staying up pretty late to finish this one in four days, and was happy to have done so. If you enjoy high fantasy and modern fairy tales, I’d say it’s well worth your time.

Started: 7/2/2015 | Finished: 7/6/2015

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