“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 loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.
Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.
The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.
But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.
150 year old hero with teen girl, yeah, that is outside my comfort zone, and I rarely read straight fantasy except for a few authors I’ve kept around for a long time. And NA/YA rarely goes well for me. But this was so well reviewed by people whose opinions I usually agree with, that it has been languishing on my pile. But then I came across another review last month, that left me feeling blegh about starting this one. And on top of my current slump, I approached it with some trepidation.
Warning: There will be spoilers. I don’t feel bad because this book has been out for a good long while.
But it was, well it was in turns delightful and horrid really. For the first third of the book there were no romantic urgings or longings, no heat or tension between the two main protagonists, just one young girls’ journey of self discovery-love, hate, jealousy, need, and personal growth. And the magic, both technical and lyrical in its turns kept me captivated. But if you need a well-defined magic system in place this may not work for you, here-at least the way Agnieszka does it, it is more art than anything else.
That’s not to say that it was perfect. Besides the grossly May December romance that was blooming, there was something in the voice of the novel that I just couldn’t quite like. You know how Katniss’ voice in the Hunger Games was somehow a step remote and cold? This was about two steps farther than that. And the way Sarkan treated her was abominable and never really reconciled. The way the initial scene with Prince Marek where he attempts to rape Agnieska and when she successfully defended herself Sarak got bent out of shape AT HER, and his solution was to let the would be rapist think he’d succeeded, that rankled entirely throughout the book. I was also set to be upset about how her “womanly” magic was so often denigrated throughout the story-but the longer I looked at it the more it seemed that the rest of them were so bound by rules that it showed more a lack in them than in her, so that worked out okay in the end for me.
But still, it kept me hooked so I almost didn’t care that I was perturbed at the voice and some of the characters. But most lovely thing of all, for my piece of mind, the one thing that kept me from being completely irate, the moment the tension did appear between our two protagonists, they separated. And Agnieszka was left to fumble, and fight, and learn her way through the next half of the story. And she received her own autonomy and freedom by being put on the lists in her own right. There’s adventure, death, and betrayal that she makes her way through before the two are reunited. Basically she did some much-needed growing up, so that I thought her less of a child, and this is key-was no longer in any way under Sarkan’s power. And in many ways I was able to see Sarkan more as a lonely stunted man. This is a fairy tale, so of course they were going to end up together. And I could have done without that aspect to be honest, but at least it didn’t squick me out as much as it might have.
But the reason for the sorcery and The Wood, and the way it all played out? That was, if not entirely to my liking (it was almost inexpressibly sad) it was entirely engrossing and not at all what I was expecting. And THAT was the happy(ish) ending that really worked for me. Girl getting guy? Yeah, somehow that part of the ending left me feeling a trifle saddened in a way that I am finding difficult to articulate. I think I honestly didn’t want them together. Don’t get me wrong, they meshed in a way that I think set a foundation that will last. But female friendship and love that lasts through every hardship and even seeing the ABSOLUTE worst in the other, that is the kind of priceless I don’t often get and was what made it work for me.
So, do I recommend it? That is hard to say. I overall enjoyed reading it and don’t feel it was a waste of my time. But I am glad to have been able to check it out of the library rather than spending money. And despite the fact that I am a massive re-reader, I doubt that I will re-read this one. Though I do I agree with others that it may actually be worth rereading, that there are layers yet to be plumbed. So it is a tricky one. But in general I think yes I would recommend it, with the caveats that if you want any of the following then this isn’t the book for you: real romance, real YA/NA, a really wrong hero groveling, or a strong and consistent magical system. Otherwise, if the idea of a fairy tale sounds like it might hit the spot, this might be a good choice.