Here is a wonderful new story from Ms Novik that has nothing to do with dragons or naval warfare. This is a bit of fairytale and a bit of dark fantasy. The title is subtle, actually; and refers to more than one thing.
Agnieszka is a young girl living in a small village bordering the Woods and protected by the Dragon in the tower. But all is not as that sounds. The Woods are dark and threatening for the unwary and the Dragon is a wizard that keeps the Woods and its creatures at bay. And once every ten years the Dragon requires a special tribute a young woman who will leave her family and all she knows to live in the tower for ten years. No one in the village knows exactly what happens to these girls; but they are happy to imagine the worst. When the girls leave the tower, they always leave the town and never come back. And they never talk about their time there.
This year is Agnieszka and her best friend, Kasia’s, turn to risk the selection. Everyone knows it will be Kasia, she is the best and prettiest. But he doesn’t pick Kasia, and Agnieszka finds herself whisked away without even a brief goodbye to everyone she knows. Life in the tower begins badly as Agnieszka is not prepared she has spent her short life running wild in the Woods and has only a passing acquaintance with a kitchen or cleaning. And, she is terribly fearful of what she expects to happen at night. But aside from his meals, the Dragon seems to have no interest in her until her magic lessons commence.
Her magic lessons are a source of frustration for them both. The Dragon knows that she has magic, he tested her; but she can’t seem to master even the simplest spells. But it isn’t until the Dragon himself is touched by the Woods that they both discover Agnieszka’s magic runs in a different path than the accepted wisdom.
The conflict in the story is the encroaching Woods that threatens all of civilization. The kingdom’s wizards have been at war with the Woods for generations with no idea of what they fight or why. It is Agnieszka who discovers, quite by accident, exactly what the Woods is and why. But she has to convince the other wizards that her style of magic is enough to actually stop the Woods. There’s also the ill-fated mission she enlists in to help the Prince go deep into the Woods to rescue his mother who was taken twenty years earlier. And it is up to Agnieszka to convince the populace that one taken by the Woods can be saved; and it may be worth her life in the trying.
I loved the characters and the world-building. The plot was fun and there were some unexpected twists. A very satisfying story with potential for another; although I’d be perfectly happy to see what other sorts of stories our Ms. Novik comes up with. ~~ Catherine Book