Author: Naomi Novik
Agnieszka has always lived in the shadow of the Wood. Although she’s drawn to the forest and the outdoors, the Wood has been waging a bloody war against the people of the valley for generations. Monsters in the Wood slip out to wreck havoc on the villages. Worse, the Wood itself breathes corruption, so that merely walking too near can turn a person to a pawn of the power that wants them all to suffer. But the valley has the Dragon to protect it, a sorcerer who lives in his tower and only comes out on the feast day to collect his tribute. And part of that tribute, every ten years, is a girl . . .
If I had to sum up this book in a word, it would be brilliant. The fairy-tale atmosphere draws the pieces into place—the Dragon, the Wood, the Tower—but the details bring everything to life. Agnieszka is a compelling voice. If she has a gift, it seems to be for ruining every nice thing she touches, but for all that she’s got a place with her family and her village. Her best friend, Kasia, is the sort of girl the Dragon likes to choose, and both girls have lived their lives in the shadow of that knowing. Everyone has. No one really knows the Dragon, and he makes no effort to be known. And none of the girls he takes ever really comes back, even when they finish their ten years in the Tower; they all go off to a bigger town, or in some other way leave the valley.
As the story goes on, the thematic elements start to get stronger. There are a number of interesting observations about roots, both literal plant roots and the insubstantial bonds that keep a people connected to the land and each other, even when that land is trying its hardest to kill them off. But these ideas play very naturally into the unfolding story.
This is also has a lot of humor, particularly between messy Agnieszka and the pristine-and-proper Dragon. He’s trying his hardest to make her into someone who won’t embarrass him or herself, and she’s trying just as hard to hang on to everything that makes her herself, which includes the fact that she can’t seem to go five minutes in something nice without it somehow coming apart.
I only really have one quibble with the story at all, and that’s with how detailed the explicit scenes get. It would be easy to recommend this to younger readers if two scenes were toned down; I would have greatly preferred the second, in particular, to be more behind-the-curtain than in-your-face.
Overall, though, the story is definitely one I would read again. The ending works perfectly, with no nasty loose ends left for a sequel, although it has the kind of openness that suggests Agnieszka is just beginning to live the kind of life she’s chosen for herself. I rate this book Highly Recommended.