Spoilers in the latter half as I descend into character analysis and stuff.
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A DARK ENCHANTMENT BLIGHTS THE LAND
Agnieszka loves her village, set deep in the peaceful valley. But the nearby enchanted forest casts a shadow over her home. Many have been lost to the Wood and none return unchanged. The villagers depend on an ageless wizard, The Dragon, to protect them from the forest's dark magic. However, his help comes at a terrible price. A young village woman must serve him for ten years, leaving all she values behind.
Agnieszka fears her dearest friend Kasia will be picked at the next choosing, for she's everything Agnieszka is not - beautiful, graceful and brave. Yet when the Dragon comes, it's not Kasia he takes.
Why I chose to buy this book:
I read the blurb, saw the cover and judged it on that. Plus I think somewhere it said Novik was drawing on a bunch of fairytales, which is an automatic plus in my eyes. I'm that person who loves a story told differently. It draws a great deal from folk-lore, too.
Also I was able to get it because it was a female author and I'm doing that thing where I only buy/read female authors for a year.
What I think of the plot:
It definitely didn't go the way I thought it was going to go - initial thoughts were "Ah, Beauty and the Beast, solid" and then later I thought "ok... hint of Sleeping Beauty?" "Oh no, that's a Baba Yaga reference! Cool!" - and it begins nice and slowly then becomes an utter gallop at the end but then there's a nice ending to it.
Most importantly, it is chiefly a coming-of-age story and I think it is told really well.
Some people on the internet (Good reads website iirc) have complained about the gallop at the end and claimed it was a rubbish ending and it felt rushed and what not. But I couldn't help feeling as though actually, that's how it was for Nieshka: She had had a quiet life, not expecting much and then suddenly she is thrown into the middle of what turned out to be magical chemical warfare.
I wasn't sure about a few of the deaths, as they happened (trying not to spoil here), but I felt it was recovered by the politics side of things at the end.
The Romance subplot worked.... just... I can see how people thought it would go the other way. I don't mind how it worked out, personally, cause I went in with a "It's Beauty and the Beast" attitude, but it didn't need the cliched night-before-the-battle sex scene. I get the feeling a lot of fantasy writers are trying to write erotica into their stories wherever they can.
It was quite a bit darker than I was anticipating and the plot unfolded at a good pace - as I was going through the book I was making more and more connections with little titbits that had been offered earlier on - with Nieshka you begin to realise that the Wood was a lot worse than simply an enchanted space where people were altered if they returned at all.
Ok, but what about the writing style?
Really engrossing. I slipped into it right away - it's simple but descriptive and I feel that Novik tried hard to include characterisation not just in what they were saying but also little things like body language - and not just through Nieshka's blushes or awkward stomach knots.
Novik has kept the Lore to a minimum - she's not explained it, it's kinda there for you to work out implicitly, if you want to. She has created a fantasy world out of Eastern European countries and stories that she grew up with, using the phonetics of those regions.
I did get irritated with one reviewer who said "with the exception of Agnieszka's name, Novik expects us to know how to read these unintelligible words" wha, wha, wha. She (the reviewer) said that she refuses to learn or to work out how to pronounce the words properly. Well, you know what, half-anonymous reviewer? I didn't either - I have some knowledge of the phonetics of Polish and Eastern European speakers - but I don't think Novik was expecting you to go and get a foreign dictionary or to learn a whole new language to get the full pronunciation of her made up magical terminology. I thought that complaint simply displayed wanton ignorance rather than an actual critique of the book.
If anything, I really enjoyed it. It made it more realistic for me and it's way cooler than using Latin like everybody else. JK Rowling has kinda taken that one and made it her own. I love the way some Russian tales have come in to the story and the languages have been used. I think it's great.
Do I recommend it? Yes. I give it 8/10
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Which tropes did I spot?
Mary Sue (God I hate that phrase)
The main criticism I've come across is about the "Mary Sue" trope - Nieshka is that typical "not pretty, very untidy, naturally able to find things in the Wood" clueless person who doesn't expect to be anything special. And in some ways, she really isn't - even by the end, she's not, it's all down to her particular affinity for her homeland.
A lot of people have said that it's lazy story-telling and makes the whole story void and crap and whilst I can see their point about the Mary Sue thing - it wasn't entirely a case of "She was naturally good at magic" - no, she wasn't! She struggled! She had to find her own way around it because what her teacher was trying to teach her was too hard or she didn't find an affinity with it.
However I refuse to agree that it makes the story rubbish - the whole back story is (and it gets expanded on, which I'll get to later) that she wasn't expecting to be chosen. Everybody thought it was going to be Kasia - the fact that she was chosen was an utter shock and surprise to her, and, apparently, to the Dragon who made no bones about the fact that she was not whom he would normally have chosen as a student.
I am going to say it now and people who come across this may well dislike me for it: I do not think that "Mary Sue" has to be a negative thing, so long as the story holds up and she (or he!) is a well-rounded character. And I think in this case, it works.
All Girls Want Bad Guys
What I initially thought was going to be the good old "grows to love the beast" (which actually, as I type and think about it, is totally part of this trope anyway), it's clear that he is the gender reversed Ice Queen waiting to be defrosted.
The Dragon is horrible to her - he doesn't treat her like a human with feelings (I'll get to why later), he is irritated by her - her behaviour, her inability to keep clean (he's got OCD) and general appearance. He is irritated that the only girl with any magical ability is rubbish at it. He is generally not very nice to her when he speaks and it's often cold and harsh.
As time goes on though, whilst he still comes out with "you idiot" and stuff, it's that of a exasperated teacher with his clumsy pupil. There were also little changes in the way his body language was described and you can totally see that Novik has set them up for lurve later, even if he's utterly reluctant to, for various reasons.
He is the typical enigma of a man that you can't help but like even though he's behaving like a misogynist pig to start with. At least it's kinda explained away and fairly satisfactorily in my opinion - I'll get to that later.
Belligerent Sexual Tension - Between Nieshka and the Dragon
Bedsheet Ladder - ok, it's not bedsheets but it's the same concept.
Achievement in Ignorance
This sums up Nieshka's life - she doesn't know how she's done things in the past, such as finding blackberries that aren't tainted by the Wood in the Wood, but it happens. She just muddles her way through and it infuriates the Dragon which I actually found quite hilarious. I dunno. It made me think of the arguments between my grandmother and I over tidiness and untidiness - she was house proud, I'm borderline a slob. I can find my way through untidiness but she needs order, much like the Dragon. He's well-read and has had over a century to perfect his craft so far, she comes in and meddles and messes and somehow works a spell that just "feels right". I'd find her annoying too, actually!
Literally, Alosha is a mage skilled at forging weapons. She's pragmatic but badass though it was hard for Nieshka to like her because she was adamant that Kasia should be killed.
Cursed with Awesome
Kasia is rescued from the grips of the wood - it changes her but she's uncorrupted so it's ok. Except she probably won't get married now. But that's ok too! I don't think she wanted to anyway. She becomes basically impenetrable (as in arrows and swords don't hurt her) and has super strength which comes in handy!
URGH. There's always that one Prince who's supposed to be charming but actually he's an inherently awful person and they try to Freudian theory it out but actually, no relationship with parents after a certain age should stop you from making life style and personality changes. Also part of the Almost Rape Scene which is another trope, really. His actions shatter Nieshka's childhood idolisation of him based on the heroic stories of him she'd heard as a child.
There are quite a few more that I never had names for because unlike my best friend I don't spend hours on TV Tropes, but I am a believer that tropes are not an inherently bad thing so long as they work and do not drag a story down or try to pass off crappy messages (Looking at you, Stephanie Meyers.)
My thoughts on the characters and their development (Spoilers)
Awkward, clumsy, very very untidy and unable to stop ruining whatever she is wearing. She grew up loved and certain that the Dragon would never want her - as such she had a good childhood. Her parents didn't distance themselves the way Kasia's did. Which is why it was more of shock and a wrench when she was taken. She is rudely forced to clean herself up with a spell which created the most ridiculous dresses and outfits for her but also wiped out all her energy (to start with). As time goes on, she learns little tricks here and there and begins to build up her magical stamina. She also finds ways of altering the spells so that they are less absolute or work more for her (such as the clothing one: she slurs some of the syllables and gets clean but less ostentatious clothing).
She is resourceful but naive and as a result of her loving childhood, rather headstrong and often goes into things without thinking. This irritates the Dragon but I think also garners some respect from him as well. The turning point is, after she's saved his life, he reckons she is probably going to be good at healing spells (spoiler: she's not) and tells her to begin studying using some book or other and without even looking up from chopping carrots, she tells him "not until I've had my lunch we're not". He doesn't reply and sits down to eat with her. It is this turning point where they are much more on the same level, even if she is not the prodigy he'd imagined or wanted.
She doesn't get much better at magic - she builds stamina enough to be able to work out a few spells of her own later, but honestly, she just does things she's done before or imagines she could do. Whilst all the other wizards and witches go by the book, she (much like Baba Yaga - Jaga, in the book) kinda just tries things out and sees what works. In true fantasy coming-of-age style, the more emotional she is, the stronger and more out of control her magic surges are. By the end, she knows what it is she is doing to an extent - not intellectually, just intuitively and by result - so she becomes more of a local wise woman rather than a courtly genius witch who could go on to write her own tomes.
In this way I think Novik was trying to keep her relateable. Academia isn't everything and actually you can find your own way through the world. What works for you might not work for other people and that is ok!
The Dragon (Sarkan)
The typical caustic, perhaps arrogant, tad misogynistic-maybe-for-a-reason hero who expresses nothing but venom disdain for our heroine to start with. He calls her an idiot, he thinks she's incredibly foolish, he keeps making comments on her slap-dash appearance (he is a house proud wizard) and is clearly irritated that he had to chose her at all.
We see a note from a previous "captive" who says to have courage and that he only wants a little bit of company - clearly an attempt to humanise him. That isn't all though - as the book progresses and he vents his frustration at her inability to work magic the exact way he does, he clearly has some grudging respect for her, particularly after she saves his life (though it should have been impossible, according to him, so he was more vexed than pleased).
He never completely turns into a kind, loving hero. He's clearly tormented. Something that comes out from other wizards is that they have lived for centuries; ll that they have loved have died or had great grandchildren. That is why they are painfully detached and pragmatic about life and death. They see the bigger world picture rather than the details of individuals anymore, something which Nieshka tries to remind the Dragon by screaming at him for not explaining to his subjects why he had taken a girl every ten years and to consider their feelings in all of it. His body language towards her changes subtly and they find a way to work together but differently, enhancing each other's magical abilities. His earlier name-calling and sarcasm is still there, but because of the nature of their relationship changing it's almost like a pet name only with less obvious affection than "honey" or "love".
The relationship between them though does inch closely to the line that separates dislike and disdain between two people and abusive relationship - depending on which review you read, it crosses that line. I can see why they would think that, and I don't agree or disagree but I do think that actually, aside from when he is trying to build her magical stamina (in a not caring way), she gives as good as she gets. She lays down some truths and he seems to listen and displays that in later actions.
It is actually through the magical workings and their magic becoming too entwined that the sexual tension begins to come to the fore, which I quite like. There was no attraction apparent otherwise. They are clearly not each other's type and he even considers her to be way too young - though she shuts him up about that later.
I did find the most amusing bit of character development was when he allowed himself to be smug after making her orgasm. Hilarious. But after the clearly amazing, desperate sex, he struggles with his rehumanisation and his reconnection to the local population. They don't just suddenly become a couple. I quite liked the uncertainty and I was particularly pleased with the end.
I feared she'd be a bit of a lame character - she's beautiful, poised, the bookies' favourite for getting taken by the Dragon. She is very much the Femme Fatal of the piece, until after she is rescued. During the rescue we learn what it was like for her to be the One Who Would Be Chosen - she was pushed by her parents to be brave, sent into dangerous or scary situations as a child. She wasn't loved in the way her children, safe from the "reaping" (so to speak), were. She detached herself from her family and her home because she knew that she would not be coming back (nobody who lived with the Dragon for 10 years was able to reassimilate into village life, for reasons the Dragon explains after the sex scene). So to be left behind but having been let go by the village was utterly crap for her. As much as they love each other, this creates a really powerful emotional undercurrent between Kasia and Nieshka which is brought to the surface as Kasia is rescued from the Wood.
After that though, having acknowledged the pain and then continued to love each other despite it, she has to get used to the fact she is basically wooden. She isn't going to be a marriageable prospect now. She has super-human strength, she is basically unhurt when arrows hit her or swords cut her. She is badass but she retains her humanity. She embraces it - she is able to protect her loves despite not being the Dragon's apprentice. She becomes instrumental in the rescue of the royal family and is able to travel the world and leave village life after all - which is good because the relationship between her and her mother is strained.
I do suspect there will be a lot of fanfiction pairing Kasia and Nieshka together. Or Kasia and Alosha. I can see that happening.
Rather cool that the most level-headed and respected wizard in the king's court was a witch. Also she was the weapons master. Very cool. She is every bit the Iron Lady type but she had more sympathy for Nieshka's situation than the others, even if she did feel that Kasia should be put to death (bigger picture and all that).
Ah, our heroic shining prince charming. First time he meets Nieshka he tries to rape her, in an attempt to cuckold the Dragon. Utter pillock. She knocks him out and batters him with a silver tray so it's all good. (Though she does admit if he'd asked her, she might have considered sleeping with him.) It turns out he is very ambitious - he's even plotting against his own brother for the crown. He is a man child who's not quite grown up. His emotional deficiencies boil down to having lost his mother to the Wood as a child and he has visions of heroic rescues and grandeur. Very Freudian and used a little too easily by Nieshka to sympathise with him even if she doesn't like him. He is hot-headed, brash and I kinda read him with Chris Hemsworth's Thor's voice, but picturing someone like William Holden's character in Sabrina. He is just a bit of a douche. Well. A lot of a douche. He is one.
But at least he goes down in an attempt to reason and do the right thing - and in some ways it's nice that his delusions weren't broken in death. He doesn't know he's failed. I dunno. I liked that. I'll probably change my mind when I re-read.
The Falcon (Solya)
Political. Smarmy. Not trustworthy in the way the Dragon comes across. You know the type - they're too friendly and you just know they're up to no good? That guy.
He does do a u-turn and see the error of his ways though, I guess?
The biggest development of character and the twist. It's always personified when spoken about and it seems to have its own agenda against the world. It retaliates and plans. It tricks and connives. It sews seeds of corruption wherever it can and it is the Dragon's job (and other wizards elsewhere) to put out the corruption and skirmishes where he can.
The twist is how it even came into existence - and here I feel like it's a commentary on humanity and nature, really. From what I understood (I was travelling across London and doing tubes and things throughout this bit so I might have missed lines or misunderstood it) there were wood people whose life purpose is to eventually grow into trees. They lived harmoniously alongside people, though not necessarily interacting that much. The entity that becomes The Wood as Nieshka knows it married an old king but wasn't trusted by the humans so she was entombed with him, tricked and trapped, not allowed to grow. This is the birth of her blood lust and vengeance - she has "forgotten the right things" and only "remembers the wrong things". It was the human misery and her inability to remember how to become a tree, to move on, that caused the corruption and dodgy magic that was going about. Once it's all sorted out, Nieshka observes that previously dangerous creatures living in the Wood were quite willing to be friendly and to help her get rid of the left over corruption, which becomes her raison d'être.
I quite liked the way they revealed it, though it was kinda weird the way it did happen. I dunno. I like that it was human's fault really and that the corruption happened because of the way humans badly interacted and had a bad influence upon elements of nature. Because we totally do. Humans suck, en masse.
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So yeah. Those are my initial thoughts about the book. I enjoyed it. I liked it. I understand her other books aren't majorly anything to scream about and Novik does loads of fan fictions online and stuff that I probably wouldn't enjoy but I liked this one and it's joining my other fairy tale novels on the shelf for keeps.