Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date Read: June 24 to 27, 2015
Read Count: 1
Recommended by: friends on Goodreads
Recommended for: people who like dark fairy tales
I liked this book well enough and much more than I thought I would because, since it’s marketed as YA, I went in with some reservations. To my surprise though it’s not YA. Sure, the main character is a young woman and there’s some romance, but it’s not YA in the usual sense. So that was a relief. I just wanted to put that out there in case it helps anyone decide whether or not this book is for them.
First off, great story, solid writing, and an interesting take on combining fairy tale elements to tell a familiar yet original story. The style reminds me a lot of the Brothers Grimm but Naomi Novik adds enough of her own flavor to keep it interesting, and there’s a distinct medieval Eastern European feel to the setting and mythology which I really like. I don’t usually read or even like fairy tales, unless they’re dark and violent, but I enjoyed a good amount of this book because of its fairy tale elements.
Those the walkers carried into the Wood were less lucky. We didn’t know what happened to them, but they came back out sometimes, corrupted in the worst way: smiling and cheerful, unharmed. They seemed almost themselves to anyone who didn’t know them well, and you might spend half a day talking with one of them and never realize anything was wrong, until you found yourself taking up a knife and cutting off your own hand, putting out your own eyes, your own tongue, while they kept talking all the while, smiling, horrible. And then they would take the knife and go inside your house, to your children, while you lay outside blind and choking and helpless even to scream. If someone we loved was taken by the walkers, the only thing we knew to hope for them was death, and it could only be a hope.
What the book boils down to is a whimsical and funny, but at times dark, tale about a young peasant girl, Agnieszka, with latent magical powers who grows into them as she battles the evil plaguing her land. Every ten years, villages in the valley supply the Dragon, a powerful wizard who lives in an ivory tower, with a girl. His job is to educate and train her in the ways of magic so that she could help him hold back the Wood, the evil presence taking over the valley. And this year Agnieszka just happens to be the “lucky” girl.
As she adjusts to her new life in the tower, Agnieszka struggles with simple tasks and household chores which is quite amusing. It’s like a combination of the Disney-fied Beauty & the Beast and Cinderella with some Snow White mixed in. I enjoyed this bit of the story the most. Gradually though, the story progresses into darker realms as the Wood advances on the valley and more is revealed about what the Wood actually is. That’s when the story incorporates darker fairy tale elements from again Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel. And many more are woven into the plot. Novik uses quite a number of fairy tales, many of which seem vaguely familiar to me but I haven’t been able to identify them yet–and I’m still working it.
Overall, I like the way Novik writes. She has a nice way with words and her prose is oftentimes lovely but not saccharine like other fairy tale retellings I’ve read. And the way in which she uses fairy tale elements in the story is really clever. She makes them an instrumental part of the story. In many ways it’s subtle and organic and doesn’t encroach on the story at all, and in other ways it’s familiar and comforting to be reminded of all these stories I used to read as a child. Even the darkness in these stories bring back fond memories–of summer afternoons spent reading in the cramped library cubbies.
If you’re a fan of the Grimms’ classics, you’ll recognize many references and mentions and will enjoy how they’re made part of the magic and mythology. And if you’re familiar with Baba Jaga, you’re in for a treat.
That said, there are a few issues I have with this book, but it could be just me though. Other readers might be able to overlook these things just fine.
* * *
* * * * some spoilers & notes for myself * * * *
Now onward to the problems.
My main problem with this book is it’s tad long. It goes on for a bit, past the point where I felt it should have ended. Or rather this leg of the journey should have ended with this book, to be picked up later in the sequel. This is precisely why the ending feels unnecessarily rushed to me now that I have time to analyze it. So many things were happening at once that not enough attention was given to interesting subplots that needed tying up. And so I think this book, for the sake of the main story arc, would have worked better if it had been split into two books. A duology would have let all these things work themselves out and that would have felt more organic. Balanced. Organically balanced? Idk. I just think that with two books there’d be enough time and space for subplots and other things to run their courses and not be rushed toward an ending too soon or crammed into the last remaining pages. Funny how at the beginning of this paragraph I said I thought this book was too long…
Another thing is pacing. The first half of the book was fine and quite well put together, but the second half somehow lost that balance. It fluctuated between being too slow during some of the courtly intrigue scenes and too fast during scenes in the Wood. I should explain though. At the mid-point in the story, the plot moved away from the valley and into the king’s castle in the capitol. We follow Agnieszka as she floundered her way through a series of high-stake obstacles, where she found treachery waiting to befall the kingdom around every corner. The more she lost her way, the more I lost interest in following her around. And then people started dying and it was discovered that the Wood had infiltrated the castle somehow (through the queen). Things got really hairy, really quickly. But my interest had waned too much to care about the royal family dying. I kept wanting the book to wrap up quickly so I could move onto something else more entertaining and less tedious. What should have been an intriguing courtly sub-plot turned into a letdown for me. I don’t care for courtly intrigue or court politics or squabbling nobility or their posturing and mind games, so it took no time at all for me to lose interest.
Lastly, the romance. It’s neither sappy nor saccharine, it just came out of nowhere and then developed quickly over a short period of time. I wouldn’t say it’s not believable, but it did seem awkward to me. I knew romance was gonna be part of this fairy tale, so it wasn’t like it caught me off guard. But the thing is the Dragon is about 400 years old and Agnieszka is 17. This is one of those instances where the pairing doesn’t work, just like so many before it. The age difference is just too obvious to overlook. Also, I’m not entirely convinced the Dragon has never had affairs with other former “students” throughout the years. I mean, he’s been in the valley for roughly 300 years? So there have been a lot of girls under his tutelage.
The ending was pretty good though and made slogging through the second half worth it. That was the one saving grace, otherwise this book would have been a big disappointment.