Warning: ahead be spoilers. Continue at your own risk.
I was looking for a book that was a good October read (fantasy or something equally unique) that wasn't a series, a fete increasingly hard to accomplish. I had begun listening to it a few months ago, and it was interesting, so I gave myself a reason to carry on.
I am so glad I did. That was one rocking, rollicking ride! Every time I thought a storyline was resolved and wondered what in the world could come next, Naomi Novik came up with something totally original, logical to the story, and fantastic.
It felt like an Old World fairy tale, and the audiobook reader had a Polish accent - which, after reading the afterward, made total sense. I also thought it was brilliant to include Baba Yaga, the European witch of lore, and introducing Jaga was a very subtle move to provide that element and make it feel as old as that tale.
As much as I love the first line — indeed, the first paragraph — the story started out a little slow for me, which is why I set it aside the first time. I am a firm believer that books should contain only the "good stuff," and the beginning felt like it wasn't doing that. But it was, I saw when I started it again, and the writing was clever and interesting, and the characters were rich and full-bodied, and the dialog was conducive to the story and true to the tale/characters/timeframe.
Our heroine, Agnieszka, is an amazing, strong character. She respects the Dragon, but allows her fear to ebb and even dissolve when she needs to. Her power she discovered in the Wood was brilliant: almost a "knock it off!" power. I like her when she's angry, and when she needs to solve issues on her own, and when she puzzles through a problem. It's her love of her home and the people in it that saves her, and them, and ultimately the Dragon.
The women in this book were well-written characters, sometimes literally strong enough to carry everyone else. The strongest Wizard, the warring monarch, the most flexible Witch, the townsperson who could ask for help ... all amazing women and robust characters.
My heart hurt when the story of the Wood-queen came to light. Like Agnieszka and the people of the land, I saw the Wood as evil, when it was so much more tragic and complicated than that.I loved Agnieszka's natural solution, and how she became the best of the girls who left the castle: she was no longer of the people, but she was their advocate and protector.
At times, I was exhausted by the story: what else could possibly move it along? What other plot complication was worthy and logical? What else could I face as a reader? The chapters were not all cliffhangers, which was nice; that is an exhausting trick to pull on readers, à la Lianne Moriarty (of whom I am now a fan). I followed Agnieszka's logic: okay, Kasia's safe and we can save people, so what now? okay, so we saved the Queen, what now? So, the Queen is pure, what now? We found the bestiary, what now? Crap, war, well, okay, darned Wood, but — wait, who is in on this? Why? What now, Ms. Novik, can you possibly trot out with any success? oh, fine, you win, and I will follow you and Agnieszka as far as you take me.
I somehow pictured the Dragon as Gandalf rather than Aragorn, so the initial magical lust between the Dragon and Agnieszka sort of freaked me out. However, their relationship was wonderful: he was all " discover your power, Grasshopper," and she was all "you may be the Dragon, but I know I am right and you'd better recognize." and the moment when he revealed why he put her in the heavy "princess" gown? Priceless. (I thought that's what all girls want.) And she was so much more practical. Talk about preconceived notions!
The ending was perfect. While I didn't need the sex scene, it made sense, moving them past teacher/student into equals and mutual adults. However, for me, the joining of their powers for spells was very intimate and trusting and loving. The Summoning for Kasia was such a loving and generous act, and changed them forever. Their relationship at the end was so well-suited for the: she remained a mess and open, he remained neat and gruff, but they were perfect for and accepting of each other. They respected and valued each other, and were powerful and fulfilled apart and together.
I am still glowing from that book. Crazy, but true. I discovered that listening is much slower than my own reading, so I need to factor that in when necessary. I don't want to listen to every book, or even listen exclusively rather than read it myself — but some books I want read to me, and this fairy tale fit the bill.