I love Novik's writing. She has such a strong ability to *flow* that I have repeatedly lost hours I didn't think I had just turning pages, completelyI love Novik's writing. She has such a strong ability to *flow* that I have repeatedly lost hours I didn't think I had just turning pages, completely absorbed. The flow is so smooth that I forget to nitpick, which is probably for the best, until after I'm done.
This is a fairy tale, full of magic, with as terrifying a threat in the Wood as anything I've read. It's a kind of tweaked Beauty and the Beast, with the teen girl protagonist trapped in a tower with a mega asshole wizard who's a hundred years older than he looks. It's a love story, and a coming-of-age story, and a cool-ass adventure full of wild magic and creeping horror and court politics.
Stuff I liked (here be spoilers):
1) Agnieska. She's a spunky protagonist with a heaping helping of common sense. She's practical with her gift, interested in the possibilities, while still being horrified at how inhuman the wizards are. She is sometimes weak, sometimes very strong, like a real person with moods and frailties. She is vastly resourceful with magic.
2) No magic system. It becomes clear fairly early on that while most wizards do have a system, complete with recipes and spellbooks and careful training, that's more of a failing than a strength. Agnieska's intuitive grasp of magic lets her bypass all the bullshit, which sometimes backfires and sometimes produces awesome effects. You get the idea that magic can do practically anything, but that its danger and unpredictability have forced humanity to retreat to rigid study instead of brashly exploring its limits. The creatively evil Wood certainly does a lot more with magic than the wizards.
3) The Wood. Oh my god. The Wood is so scary. Jesus Christ.
4) Thank goodness for this being an Eastern Europe fantasy instead of yet another Western Europe one. It adds just the right amount of flavor and it lets Novik loop in all sorts of great legends like Baba Yaga. A+.
Things I didn't like:
1) Novik has this tic, most obvious in the middle of the book, where Agnieska narrates her thoughts on something (to the reader) and then another character responds as if she had said it all aloud, despite there being no indication of this. The other characters answer questions Agnieska herself seems to have just thought of and never voiced. For a while it was happening a couple times a page with the Dragon and I kept thinking OH GOD HE'S READING HER THOUGHTS WITH MAGIC, WHEN'S SHE GOING TO NOTICE AND GET MAD, but no, it was not a plot thing. It was the only time I found myself breaking out of the flow.
2) The Dragon. I know this is a Beauty and the Beast story so the Dragon has to be a mega dick to make up for the fact that he's not a scary-looking monster. But he never stops being a mega dick. Even through the softening gaze of Agnieska as she falls in love with him, he never really relaxes around her. The only sign that he's falling for her is that he stops calling her a moron 40 times a day. This makes her attraction to him really creepy, and I couldn't decide whether Novik wants us to root for their relationship or not. It feels like Stockholm Syndrome, which I realize is not an original observation regarding Beauty and the Beast stories. He starts out physically scary (dragging her around, forcing her to do magic when she doesn't even understand what it is) and remains emotionally distant even at his most passionate.
When she's in the capital and muses that she misses having him around to tell her what an idiot she is, I wanted to throw the book across the room. Their sex scene is sexy but marred by the way he kind of cusses her out before they get down to business. If he had smiled just once in the entire book I might have felt like Agnieska had penetrated his shitty asshole veneer and found the soft chewy human center underneath, but as it stands I still hate him at the end, even though he CLEARLY loves her and CLEARLY only came back because she's forced him to put down the roots he always resisted, just by existing. Even showing that all the wizards are shitty assholes doesn't explain why she falls in love with this particular shitty asshole. The balance feels lopsided, like she's giving ten times what he is to the relationship, and it doesn't feel healthy. What a jerk.
3) I occasionally felt like Agnieska took too quickly to magic once she stopped stumbling over it, that there should have been a more gradual ramp-up of her abilities, but I think that might be my problem rather than the book's, a certain expecation of how magical-powers stories are supposed to go. She uses every spell she learns more than once, and combines and repurposes them creatively to do wacky awesome shit that sometimes feels like D&D (CALL LIGHTING! FUCK YES!!!) The point is that she has X amount of ability, where X is pretty large, and once she learns even the basics of harnessing it she has access to all of it at once. The limit of her powers isn't the main driver of tension, it's that she has many awesome godlike abilities and they still might not be enough to defeat the incredible terror that is the Wood. That's pretty badass and, honestly, refreshing.
This novel is occasionally very dark, but in the end it's like one of the illumination spells the wizards use to search for corruption. It fills you up with comforting golden light - good exists in the world, some valleys are worth enormous sacrifice to save, love and connection to the land can be as great a power as shooting fire from your hands. It's a story we've all heard before, but how would we even know any fairy tales if they weren't worth being retold again and again?...more