This is an old world fairytale for the grown up princess in you. And if you’re not a princess, there is enough battle and bloodshed to get that inner beast thumping as well. Familiar elements twist and unfurl into an unexpected and deeply satisfying coming of age journey that will leave you breathlessly uncertain of the outcome until the end. This is a book I actually purchased instead of receiving from a publisher, and I have to say that it was definitely worth the price and the lost sleep.
“Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.”
Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.
Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.
The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.
But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.
There is a lot of action, adventure, friendship and romance packed into this unassuming tome. It was actually pretty epic, something the blurb didn’t prepare me for. Agnieszka’s journey goes beyond a simple change in life plan. She will battle an insidious evil in farmyards, castles, tombs, and corrupt woods. She will go from being the disasterous woodcutter’s daughter to being one of the strongest female protagonists you will encounter, not because her experiences change who she is, but because they bring out the attributes she has always carried within.
The pace is designed to enhance the lulls that Agnieszka experiences as a character, and it serves a purpose. The down time gave me a breather between intense action sequences, but it also gave the enemy a chance to lay traps and hidden eggs that would fester and burst just when characters began to let their guards down. I thought it was pretty brilliant, but some readers may view it as just an uneven pace. In doubt someone who crafted something this thoughtful and complex just accidentally didn’t bother with purposeful pacing, but I can understand how someone who doesn’t analyze the stuffing out of a book might think that.
I do think some readers will be turned off by the romantic interest. He isn’t anything to brag about, and he is certainly not my idea of a reward. I think the reason I wasn’t particularly upset by this aspect of the story is because I wasn’t reading this for the romance, and if you are, I’m just warning you that you might be disappointed. The more important relationship for me was between Agnieszka and her best friend. There was a real depth to their friendship that felt honest and real, and it came with a loyalty that meant they might not always like each other, but they always loved and protected each other. It is that relationship that really allows Agnieszka to complete her journey.
The suspense in this book is well done. I honestly couldn’t feel out what was going to happen next, and sometimes I really wondered what kind of madwoman would write a book that was so obviously going to end in despair. I’m glad I didn’t desert Agnieszka because, in the end, I was satisfied by the resolution. It wasn’t the ending I predicted at all, but it was the one that felt right.
While this is an adult book, it isn’t “adult.” There are scenes of sensuality and some threatened assault, but it isn’t something you have to hide from a young adult reader. As a matter of fact, I think this is exactly something high school readers could enjoy if they were looking for a more complex version of the fairytale offerings that are everywhere in the YA book world right now.