This won the Nebula Award for Best Novel this year so I thought I’d give it a read, stake a claim that my opinion is just as important as the judging panel’s, and put my critic’s hat on for the first time in too long (it’s quite a plush felt fedora, greenish brown with a flamboyant purple feather tucked into the slim, black headband). It was published by Pan Macmillan in May 2015 (in the UK), here’s their blurb to handily save me summarising it:
Agnieszka loves her village, set deep in a 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. One young village woman must serve him for ten years, leaving all they value 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.
Guess who he takes! Yes, got it in one: our intrepid first-person narrator, Agnieszka. Very convenient. Why? Because she’s a witch who can do magic herself. Interestingly, rather than jumping for joy and imagining the endless possibilities now open to her, like those of us from the Harry Potter generation no doubt would, Agnieszka is too consumed by her mistrust of the Dragon to do so. For the first half of the novel, his taking a 17 year old girl of his choosing from her village every ten years, sequestering her in a tower for that period of time and supposedly having his wicked wizardly way with her, somewhat gets in the way of Agnieszka warming to the Dragon, and therefore of learning much magic. It is only when her village is threatened that she comes to the depressingly obvious realisation that she now has power, and therefore responsibility.
Perhaps I’ve been a little unfair, but my main, and almost only complaint about the novel, is how far ahead I was ahead of Agnieszka. A more discerning reader, however, may well keep in mind that she is young, and that if she motored around, maturely solving problems without a hiccough before they even arose, the novel might be quite dull, and we’d miss out on what is in truth, a very well-handled coming-of-age story. Besides, she is a very headstrong, credible, female protagonist – a welcome rarity for Fantasy in my view – who courageously blunders her way through a mysterious, and at times genuinely scary, world.
Having spent quite enough time in the Dragon’s tower, Novik sends our heroine to the city to try her hand at court politics. She is predictably terrible at it, having grown up a country peasant, but then I’d certainly loathe her if she’d been any good at it. The city threw up quite enough characters which fully deserved my disgust, and plenty of just comeuppances are served up for readers to greedily gobble. Mmmm…catharsis! That said, there’s plenty of delicious pain for the goodies to endure too.
The system of magic devised for this novel is brilliant and entirely appropriate to the plot. I have read complaints that it is underdeveloped, but to my mind, this is its main strength. No time is wasted describing complicated hand movements or prerequisite breath-holding, emotion-stifling or toe-waggling. The magic remains mysterious, and changes character to align beautifully with the character of its caster. The Dragon’s magic is precise and formal. Another’s is as hard and practical as the anvil she uses to forge magic swords on. Agnieszka’s is wild, natural, and less easily explained. Magic can’t do everything, it doesn’t always do what you want it to, and if you try to overstretch your bounds, it’ll kick down those invisible wattle-and-daub walls which hold our tenuous reality together.
The ultimate confrontation between good and evil in the novel is, in the end, not so black and white as all that. The right thing to do turns out not to be particularly simple or obvious, and it makes a fitting, mature end, to a compelling and wondrous novel.