Every ten years, the Dragon comes to the village of Dvernik and selects a 17-year-old girl to take back to his tower. Despite the rumors outside the village, he doesn’t eat them—he’s actually a wizard named Sarkan. And this wizard doesn’t lay a hand on the girls he takes. But ten years after being taken, each girl returns changed, unwilling to marry or to stay in the village.
Agnieszka, the narrator of this novel by Naomi Novik, will turn 17 during a Dragon year, but she’s not concerned about being taken herself. She, like everyone in Dvernik, knows that her beautiful best friend Kasia will be the Dragon’s choice. Of course, as someone who had read a book before, I wasn’t surprised when the choice was different and Agnieszka ended up in the Dragon’s tower.
Agnieszka was chosen not for her beauty or wit but because the Dragon saw that she had magical gifts and those with a gift must be trained. After a bumpy start, when the Dragon treats Agnieszka with disdain no matter what she does, Agnieszka begins to find her power—and a powerful partnership with Sarkan. As Agnieszka learns to use her power to protect those she loves, she confronts an evil with the power to corrupt not just her village, but the entire universe.
This fantasy, which draws on the Baba Yaga legend, has a lot to recommend it. I was especially drawn in by the descriptions of the magic itself, which is depicted as something like music, requiring both intense study and natural talent. Each witch and wizard has a particular style. Sarkan’s magic is precise, following the formulas carefully. Agnieszka’s is more improvisational, as she lets the words show her what to do. Making magic together requires the two voices to find a way to blend while retaining their particular unique qualities because no one style of magic is superior. What seems to be important is that each person find his or her own style.
The world Novik has created is just as rich as the system of magic. It doesn’t take long for the story to expand beyond the village and the tower. Personally, I found the story rather larger in scope than I would have liked, and I struggled a bit to maintain my interest when Agnieszka ended up at the royal court. I could appreciate what Novik what doing, but I think when it comes to fantasy, I love the stories that are about learning the rules and harnessing the magic properly. Fantasy politics, even skilfully depicted, are often tedious to me.
But to give Novik credit, even when it comes to my specific preferences, she centers the story squarely on Agnieszka and her desire to protect those she loves. The politics come into play only when they mean her people could be hurt. As the story goes on, her areas of concern expand to include more than her family and friends, but her fears and doubts remain the core of the narrative. And this brings up another thing that I appreciated about the book. Agnieszka is supremely talented, but she makes mistakes, some of which are quite serious. Yet her actions, perhaps especially her mistakes, are what lead to a needed disruption of the status quo. Being young in her power, she needs to learn a lot, but her youth also brings fresh eyes and a different set of priorities.
Novik is best known for her Temeraire books, a fantasy series I’ve seen described as Patrick O’Brian with dragons. Perhaps I’ll check those out after I finish O’Brian’s books. If you’ve read them, what did you think?
I received an e-galley of this book for review consideration via Edelweiss.