“Are you Baba Jaga?” she asked interestedly.
“No,” I said. “But you might call her a friend of mine.”
This curious book was again a recommendation and even birthday present of my series junkie and I read most of it during my summer holidays. And to be honest I didn’t need the hint in the preamble that Novik grew up with Polish fairy tales. The influence of eastern Europe/Russian fairy tales screamed at me throughout the whole book in the setting, the names and mentioned people and I really enjoyed it.
But where to start properly? The heroine and also narrator is Agnieszka who grew up in a valley near Polnya’s border to Rosya which is marked by an ancient forest older than both countries themselves. But the forest isn’t a protection against a war opponent but rather an enemy of its own. From time to time strange things would come out of it, spoiling the harvest, corrupt animal and people alike and lure them to go inside the forest or take them by force and only the lord of the valley, an over hundred year old wizard called the Dragon, can effectively protect them against this horror. Both facts don’t stop Agnieska from running around all day with her best friend, beautiful and talented Kasia, and even going inside the wood for one of them is doomed anyway to spent 10 years in the Dragon’s tower cause this is the tribute he wants for his protection.
As everyone assumes Kasia would be the one out of all girls aged seventeen from the valley who the Dragon would pick as his new servant (he sets them free every ten years) Agnieska is rather shocked when he decides to pick her instead. And he seems to be surprised himself when he finds out that she is neither capable of “cooking for a noble man” nor suits his standards of beauty for she really has a talent to get dirty as soon she moves. The small spells he teaches her exhaust her completely and she doesn’t realize that he actually teaches her magic until a clothing spell prevents a sexual assault by the younger Prince of Polnya.
Afterwards she’s actually eager to learn, but still struggles until she has to save her village from an attack of the wood (and breaks free to do so, because the dragon is away to help in another part of the country). She does a pretty good job doing so, but the Dragon gets injured when he finally arrives and saves her and Kasia from some wolves. Desperately searching for a way to cure him Agnieszka finds an old book with highly inaccurate spells – but (to the great astonishment of the Dragon) they work for her and she continues to study them.
The next attack of the wood is the kidnapping of Kasia whom Agnieszka can rescue, but for being locked in a heart tree some days she already is corrupted to a limit that they actually are demanded to kill her by law. Nevertheless Agnieszka persuades the Dragon the keep her friend alive and execute with her the Summoning, a spell that reveals the truth. Soon afterwards the rumour of their successful “excorcism” spreads and again the prince appears demanding that his long lost mother is brought back from the Wood. Under the loss of forty soldiers the Queen can really be brought back to the capital, to be judged by the church and the other magicians if there really is no more corruption in her. Since the Dragon fears revenge from the Wood and wants to stay in the valley, Agnieszka and Kasia accompany them alone. While Agnieska fights for the official recognition as witch despite her young age and the rather “strange” way her already powerful magic works (only then she’s allowed to defend Kasia in the trial) both of them realize that the corruption also spreads in the palace. So when they finally flee back to the Dragon’s Tower with the children of the older prince only their uncle and grandmother are left of the royal family. In the bloody siege and the slaughtering nearly the complete army of Polnya is killed. Too late Agnieszka and the Dragon realize that the queen was free of corruption because she had been a mere empty shell directed by the Queen of the Wood. They manage to overpower her, but can’t kill her.
So when everything for the royal children and Kasia to travel to their other grandparents is settled afterwards both magicians enter the Wood again and manage to get to the old center of it where the heart trees are surprisingly free of corruption. During the battle they had learned through the Summoning that the Wood Queen had been married to the king of the tower once, but been betrayed after his death and walled in his tomb. In a last fight with her Agnieska gets locked into the biggest of heart trees and gets to know her sister, who is this tree. When things between the men of the valley and the people of the wood got worse they had decided to turn into trees instead. But the queen could think only of revenge back then. Sad and deeply moved Agnieska can free herself and persuade the queen to finally find peace as a tree beside her sister.
Feeling that his work is down – or to be more honest afraid of his feelings for Agnieska – the Dragon leaves the valley while she stays and helps the wood to heal. Unlike him she accepts that her roots are in the valley and knows that the life there will improve now that the Wood is slowly released from the queen’s evil thoughts.
I love this book. I know I hardly say so about a book, but that’s the way it is. I immediately felt connected to Agnieska, her apparent clumsiness, her stuborness, her fierceness and her love for the Wood. Novik’s play with fairytale elements is a delight and the the story twists surprise still though I already had a feeling while reading the about the battle around the tower that the conflict might solve in a way that meant peace with the wood. I also like her turn on Tolkien’s Ents (or the original myth he based them on), the way Agnieska’s magic works, the way she incessantly rejects the younger prince, the Dragon’s vanity….
Okay, let’s just sum it up to this: Read this book if you still love fairytales and believe that the female protagonists does not have to be saved, but can be a hero of her own.
PS: Can someone tell me why I have “His Majesty’s Dragon/Temeraire” on my reading list without having the slightest idea how it got there?
PPS: When I first talked with my series junkie about the book her husband was around and mentioned that it’s actually alarming how normal it seems to be in fairytales for the “prince” to kidnap his future wife. So I’m rather glad that Agnieszka is the type of hostage that the kidnapper leaves alone voluntarily and even princes have to fear.
Started: 24.7.19 Finished: 14.8.19