My rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Agnieszka is an ordinary girl from the valley. She loves her family, her best friend Kasia, and the feel of the earth between her toes. She does’t have to worry about much, not the way Kasia does. Every ten years the wizard who protects the lands from the evil Wood comes and chooses one of the local girls to take to the tower. Nobody knows what happens to the girls in the tower, but they are never the same when they come back. Everyone knows that Kasia, with her beauty and grace, will be taken next. Too busy mourning over the fate of her friend, Agnieszka is completely unprepared when the unthinkable happens: the Dragon chooses her instead.
Agnieszka discovers that she has hidden magical abilities. To both her and the Dragon’s surprise, her magic is strong and unlike any the Dragon has seen. When the Wood begins unleashing its forces on the innocent victims of the village, the two of them learn to work together to try and stop it before it takes over and corrupts everyone.
This book is amazing. Taking influence from Slavic folk lore, the story was original, yet familiar. Novik envokes the spirit of Baba Yaga (a witch, popular in Slavic fairy tales), through the handwritten spell diary that Agnieszka finds in the tower. While the Dragon and wizards of the court have more structured forms of magic, Agnieszka practices “old magic,” manipulating and bending the natural world around her. I really enjoyed the way that everyone has their own unique type of magic in this world. Even the “rules,” don’t apply to most of the well seasoned witches and wizards most of the time. Their magic is more about feel and what is happening around them, rather than just pure chanting and potion mixing. Magic here is not as easy as it is often portrayed in other fantasy stories. It is physically draining on the body and requires a great amount of willpower. Even though Agnieszka was born with a natural proclivity for magic, it was still something she had to put a great deal of effort into, which (in my opinion) is what truly made her accomplishments all the more rewarding.
Another thing I loved in this story was the fact that the villain was not a person or physical entity. The evil came from the Wood, the vast expanse of forest that has slowly been taking over the valley for centuries. Everyone is terrified of the Wood. It’s filled with creatures of nightmare and a dark force that lures people away from their homes and into the forest, often never to be seen again. The trees eat people without killing them, growing their bark over them, leaving them trapped inside and eternally tortured. Even when people so emerge from the Wood, they are full of corruption and must be put to death.