This is a general statement for most of my reviews, if not specified otherwise: the review will be spoiler free until the designated SPOILERS section at the end! Read that at your own peril if you have not yet read this novel!
The writing within this was simply stunning. It was told in first person (something I generally stay away from) but it didn’t take away from the story at all. I have to admit I am used to reading YA books, and since this is a general fiction/fantasy novel, I should have had higher expectations for the writing and for this book in general. The main character was only eighteen, but the way she described everything was so detailed that I never once had to stop and go back and try to figure out what was going on in the world created here. The writing was enthralling and engaging, the characters and places jumping off the page as if they were right in front of me, flesh and blood and wood and stone. It was really remarkable, as I have had few instances in the past few years of reading where I was this intent on finishing a novel.
Sidebar: I actually read this as a read-along with my dearest bookishdarling Ace, and because of that I was forced to read it little by little. At the beginning I just really wanted to read it all in one sitting, but I’m very glad that I read it slowly. It gave me more time to appreciate the way the writing could keep pulling me in even after reading 30 to 50 pages and then coming back to it twenty four hours later. It was really amazing how I could end on a cliffhanger and return to it with excitement and anticipation and Naomi Novik was able to suck me back in without it even being a struggle for me to remember what was happening.
The world she created was full of life, the Woods themselves were truly stunning, frightening and towering tall above me. During some of the passages I actually felt them crowding around me, and in others, I could feel the cool chill inside the Dragon’s tower, the stuffiness of the court…gosh, everything just came so to life that I was completely taken away.
Note to self: read more general fiction/fantasy if it’s as amazing as this!
The blurb on the back gives you little to no inkling of what’s going to happen. The blurb takes place in the first chapter and then you’re running blind. I’ll tell you a tiny bit more about the plot just to give you an idea. The main character is named Agnieszka and she is a girl from a small village. Like stated in the blurb, a wizard called The Dragon chooses a girl every ten years to bring to his tower. Everyone thinks it will be Agnieszka’s best friend Kaisa, but it’s actually Agnieszka herself! The Dragon takes her away from her family, and Agnieszka basically goes kicking and screaming once she’s been taken away. The Dragon is there in their land to fight off the evil magic of The Wood, a powerful and dark forest that has a life of its own. Agnieszka and the Dragon find their lives and fates more intertwined than either of them could imagine as the power of The Wood starts to overcome the powerful wizards of the land.
So that’s a tiny bit more you get about the plot. I don’t want to say too much and risk completely spoiling the book. I really loved how I just read the back and was thrown into the story. The plot takes some turns and twists that I both expected and didn’t expect, and it was a wonderful ride. All throughout it had a feeling of a fairy tale; the type that the Grimm Brothers originally wrote, with death and macabre touches. The entirety of the story was just that: a big fairy tale. I’m told it’s based off of Polish fairytales, and the lands and language within the story also give nods to that part of the world, while also being in a completely made-up world.
I was never disappointed in the plot, and the ending tied everything up perfectly in a bow, which I wasn’t expecting but happy to have. I much prefer reading standalone books these days, and this one was superbly done, creating a full, enticing story all in one written world, while leaving the reader with a little more to think about past the ending and also about the world in general.
Agnieszka was one of my favorite protagonists I have ever had to read. She was so flawed that she was utterly human. She was scared, she was brave, she was reckless, she was kind, she acted accordingly to the situations around her in a way that painted her as an actual human being. I believe in chapter three I instantly decided that she was going to be my favorite female character in a fantasy series. I’m not sure anyone can top her and that scene (I’ll talk about this in the spoilers down below!). I think that any young woman should definitely read this book if just to see how someone not “perfect” can still be strong and carry an entire story on her shoulders with ease.
The Dragon is another character I really enjoyed. At first I was put off by him…because Agnieszka was put off by him and she was the narrator. I was happy to see him (and all of the other characters in the book as well) not being romanticized or falling into cliches. His personality stayed the same through the entire book, though we did get to see some layers of him as the story progressed. I almost want to say he wasn’t that big of a part in the book as you’d imagine, but that may be my own personal bias, as I was completely focused on Agnieszka.
I want to talk about other characters but I fear that will spoil you, so read below only if you want to in the spoilers section!
Hands down I think this is the best book I’ve read probably in my whole life, a notch below the Lord of the Rings series. I’ve had a few days to really digest and think about this, and I still think that fact holds true. It’s just so well done, it had everything in it that I was hoping and looking for and I wasn’t never disappointed, not even a little bit. I think a lot of that had to do with it being a general fantasy rather than an YA book, but I still think that once I dive more into general fiction, this will still be up on a pedestal. It’s just that amazing.
I want this book to now be that one that I tell everyone to read! It’s just too good to go unnoticed by people I know who will thoroughly enjoy it as much as I did.
As I was reading, I was thinking it had a touch of Beauty and the Beast in it, and then it sort of just escalated and became entirely it’s own thing. I really dislike comparing books to other books because, in my opinion, if a book cannot stand on its own, maybe it’s not as great as it should be.
Below is a section of blatant spoilers where I gush about certain events in the book! Don’t read on if you don’t want to be spoiled to bits!
Ahhhhhh! I loved this so much! Time to scream about it!!
Ace and I originally read this because we were trying to find books with asexual characters in them. This came up on every list, and I’m not sure which character it was talking about…Kaisa? The Dragon? Agneiszka? It was hard to tell since the “romance” was so tiny. I found that I didn’t really care all that much who the supposed asexual person was, because the romance was handled well enough and didn’t overpower or become a driving force for the plot at any one time.
The scene that I decided Agneiszka was gonna be my favorite protag ever was when she beat up the prince with a food tray. I just…it was so unexpected I was laughing by the time I ended the chapter and I was just so stunned at the turn of events.
At first I wasn’t too impressed with the Agneiska/Dragon thing…y’know, where their magic fuses together and they almost have sex in the library…I was like, ugh noooo why is this a thing? But then I remembered I wasn’t reading a YA novel and the situation was handled really well. I understood why it happened in the first place, and it was addressed in the future when they fused magic again, and when they actually did sleep together, it was their own will and not magic pulling the strings. I’m still a bit iffy about the “romance”, I kind of wish it had stayed platonic, but that’s just me, since I did go into thinking the main character was gonna be asexual…not to say asexuals can’t be in relationships or don’t have sex, but yeah….this is getting messy, I’ll shush now.
I was totally shocked to see Kaisa become such a huge part in the story, but I loved her so much. She became just as important as she’d been raised to believe that she would be. She protected people, she saved children, she was just…a glowing, beautiful knight of wood and golden hair. Truly remarkable that that sort of character was a woman and not a man.
The entire history/climax at the end with the Wood Queen and the Wood itself was really interesting, because it tied up loose ends, gave purpose to the Wood and everything clicked into place for me as a reader. It also left enough questions for me to still be thinking about it later on. Will they ever be able to reunite her with her kin? Will the Wood ever really be tamed? So many questions! Questions that I’m totally okay with having and thinking about for years to come.