Holiday reading is my favorite, and I was fortunate to have a rip-roaring book to tear through this holiday. I was also pleased, per the title of this post, that it ended and it will not continue as a duology or trilogy. Naomi Novik developed an imaginative world populated with interesting characters and an engaging story. I’m quite sure the characters continued living their lives after I closed the book, but I am also happy that all necessary loose ends were wrapped up so satisfactorily.
Briefly, Agnieszka is a peasant girl who lives in a quiet village that is protected from an encroaching Wood inhabited by creepy, violent creatures made of wood, by an aloof wizard called the Dragon. Periodically, one village girl (typically, the most attractive and talented) is given to the Dragon as tribute. She works for him for 10 years and never comes back to the village after that. Agnieszka knows the Dragon will take her best friend, Kasia, next, and she is devastated. However, the Dragon doesn’t take her friend, he takes her.
The first half or so of the novel takes place in the Dragon’s tower, and the claustrophobic atmosphere enhanced the struggles Agnieszka faced in trying to understand a difficult master and coming to terms with her nascent magical abilities. The second half ranges widely across the country and finally into a showdown in the Wood. While the Dragon continues to be an important character and Agnieszka meets many other folks, the heart of the story is Kasia and Agnieszka’s relationship and how they move from their tiny isolated village through life- and country-altering experiences. People they meet, like the Dragon, are isolated, separated, and aloof, while they survive by remembering connections and longing for familiar places even as they leave them: “Even the mountains, my constants, had disappeared. Of course I’d known there were parts of the country with no mountains, but I’d imagined I would still see them somewhere in the distance, like the moon. But every time I looked behind me, they were smaller and smaller, until finally they disappeared with one final gasp of rolling hills.”
This is a satisfying fairy tale and beautifully written. But it is a fairy tale and most of the characters are predictable in the ways of fairy tales.