Rating: 4 Stars
Synopsis via Goodreads:
“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.
I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen this much hype for a book.
I think I ended up getting about three personal recommendations for this book long before I’d even heard of it, and in the last few weeks or so, this book is all I’ve heard anything about. Goodreads is swimming in reviews and recommendations for this book. There are few to no bad reviews. I think I’ve read all of one sad one star rating for this book, and that’s very rare, especially for a book with already so much hype. There are almost always going to be those handful of reviewers who just absolutely hate this book and can’t understand why there was so much hype, and usually a reason why they hate it as much as they do is due to all the raving and being told how this is going to be one of the best books they read this year.
This is not the best book I’ve read this year. But it is one of the best I’ve read this year.
I was both irritated and amused during the first few chapters of this book. Going into it I didn’t allow myself to have high hopes, just because of all the hype. When we’re introduced to Agnieszka, I groaned, because I could see her as a Mary Sue. She’s the normal, not so pretty girl who somehow, against all reason, is picked over her best friend, Kasia, by the Dragon. She’s not gifted or special or even pretty.
When the Dragon takes her, he’s obviously not happy about it. He was expecting to take Kasia, too. But he saw something special in Agnieszka that made him pick her, so he just had to.
At this point, I was groaning. Here is when I saw Agnieszka suddenly realize she has some special gift or power (she did) and now the Dragon was going to train her in using this gift (he did) and she was going to have trouble at first, but then something would suddenly change and she would be amazingly powerful and awesome at it and everything would just come naturally to her (it did) and thus begins the love triangle with the Dragon – who does not immediately like her and is rude to her without us understanding why but is secretly in love with her and who we all know she will ultimately end up with – and prince charming (this . . . does not happen).
But I began to look all past that for the story. Because this is something out of a Grimm fairytale, and I immediately loved the story for that. I love wicked and cursed forests.
And then . . . the story got so much better. Suddenly, the Dragon – who obviously is not a real dragon and that is just his wizard name and who is the most powerful wizard of his time – is not the good guy, but is not the bad guy. He does not fall in love with Agnieszka after the first few chapters. There are no sudden moments when he suddenly kisses her and Agnieszka looses all her dignity and forgets every awful thing he’s done to her and every other girl he’s taken. She does not have wobbly knees around him or love-struck eyes. She’ll yell at him and curse at him and tell him to shut up when he’s being difficult and impolite. She smiles when he yells at her because he is, after all, an ancient old wizard even if he doesn’t look like it whose got the temper of an old man. It’s kind of funny, really.
“Listen, you impossible creature,” he said, “I’m a century and more older than–“
“Oh, be quiet,” I said impatiently.
And then prince charming isn’t so charming after all. And I don’t mean he’s simply a spoiled brat (though he is), but he’s also a lonely little prince who wants his mother back from the Woods, where she was taken all those years ago. The prince is not kind nor polite. He’ll smile at you with his dimples and beam at you like the golden boy he appears to be just to get into your skirts and never speak to you again.
And Agnieszka, even though I was fully expecting a Mary Sue, beats prince charming over the head until he almost dies.
Something I loved beyond belief here was Agnieszka’s self-esteem. Part of the Mary Sue complex is for the naturally beautiful heroine to believe herself unappealing or ugly. I hate that so much. Not even because she’s really beautiful more than half the time and has a good chunk of the male population falling in love with her, but because why the heck do I even care what she looks like? Even if the heroine has acne and flat hair and a too-big nose, she shouldn’t have to feel ugly because of any of that. And I especially hate having to read paragraphs in books about the heroine explaining to me why she thinks she’s either ugly or beautiful.
Here, Agnieszka is told she’s ugly. More than once. It’s rude and it annoys her, but she simply doesn’t care. It’s not that she even sees herself ugly or has self-pity, because she doesn’t. There are no paragraphs about how she looks. All I know about her appearance is that she has brown hair. That’s it. Even when people tell her to her face that she’s not pretty or that there’s no accounting for taste and things like that, she gets angry because it’s rude, but it doesn’t make her want to cry or make her feel bad for herself.
“I was a glaring blot on the perfection. But I didn’t care: I didn’t feel I owed him beauty.”
I cannot explain how much I loved this. Because in YA books women are supposed to be pretty and rosy cheeked and big eyed and here’s Agnieszka over here, spilling soup and getting mud on her skirts and just really not giving one flying hoot.
When the romance does happen, it’s soft. There were only about two romantic scenes at all, but I didn’t miss it. We don’t get paragraphs and paragraphs describing how the kisses feel or what they taste like or blah, blah, blah. The Dragon doesn’t ever have a change of heart or suddenly treat Agnieszka any different.
“You intolerable lunatic,” he snarled at me, and then he caught my face between his hands and kissed me.
And there was no girl-on-girl hate, either. There is no real jealousy or backstabbing. Agnieszka and Kasia may envy things about each other, but they love each other more. They’re as close as two girls can get, and I loved that about them. Neither particularly cared about men and neither were fawning idiots. Honestly, I almost wanted some more time with Kasia in the book, but I was also surprised that we even got to see more of her after the Dragon picks Agnieszka over Kasia in the first chapter.
And even though Agnieszka is the one with powerful magic, Kasia has her own strength, and it’s just as amazing.
“And I wasn’t old enough to be wise, so I loved her more, not less, because I knew she would be taken from me soon.”