By Naomi Novak
Agnieszka knows what people say about the Dragon who guards their valley: that he eats the girls he takes in, that he violates them, that he makes them vanish forever. He doesn’t do that, not really – no, the girls come back, whole and healthy, but… changed. Always changed.
It is a small price to pay, however, for the protection the Dragon gives them from the terrible Wood. Without him, the valley could not survive. So every ten years, the Dragon comes out and chooses a young girl to keep in his tower, and the villagers let him leave.
The time is nearing again, and Agnieszka knows the Dragon will choose her best friend Kasia – beautiful, strong, special Kasia.
Of course, Agnieszka is wrong.
This book is a fairytale, and I mean that in both the good and the bad. It is soft and lyrical, aggressively folkloric, limited in its scope, and works on emotional logic more so than on actual logic. Depending on your tastes, these characteristics could go either way.
On the one hand, the limited scope is appropriate for what is essentially a highly localized story (I was honestly surprised when half-way through Agnieszka actually leaves the valley, because until then I’d thought the whole plot would play out around the tower and was completely okay with that.) On the other hand, those who really care about worldbuilding might be left wondering if Polnya and Rosya are the only two countries left in a world decimated by the Woods’ advance for all the rest of the world is barely ever mentioned. The way magic works, especially in relation to Agnieszka’s use of it, is never really explained in a satisfying way.
The references to slavic folklore, particularly Polish, are never specific or important enough to be distracting for those unfamiliar with them, but they may harm the immersion of someone who is. The emotional logic can seem perfectly sensible while you read but not hold up to actual scrutiny later on. The fairytale tropes could bring some to think of it as cliché.
Those are all valid problems with the book. And I don’t really care. I liked this book. It was entertaining and familiar, like cuddling up next to the fire and reading some Grimm fairytales before bed-time (which is a practice I thoroughly recommend with older kids; they love all the violence and weird magic).
I will say that it is refreshing to see a re-imagined fairytale that isn’t in-your-face about subverting all the usual tropes (even though this one does subvert quite a few, it does so in a way that feels organic to the story rather than because it’s trying to make a point).
The characters are very nice to spend some time with, even though they don’t really break any new ground. Agnieszka is practical almost to a fault, reckless in her desire to help others, and incredibly loyal to her friends and family. The Dragon is a grumpy wizard who likes everything to be just so and struggles with pesky human things like emotions while being a socially-awkward bookworm. Kasia is brave and strong like a lady in a song, Marek is a prince with too much self-esteem and Solya likes things to go his way. There’s nothing new here, but for a fairytale it’s perfectly serviceable.
I know some people were expecting a love story between Agnieszka and Kasia, so let me warn you right here – that’s not what happens. This is one aspect of the fairytale that wasn’t subverted, but I can’t really begrudge Novak for that; mostly because while wlw representation is always nice to see, I also crave positive female friendships in fiction the way a man in the desert craves water. If she couldn’t give us one, I’m glad she gave us the other. (There’s also the fact that Kasia’s character is… really not developed enough in my opinion to make for a compelling love interest. But that’s just me.)
All in all, if you like engaging fairytales that don’t go to any lengths to subvert the tropes you’re used to, or smaller fantasy stories with lyrical tones, or you just want a novel about a damsel who isn’t a damsel and a Dragon who isn’t a dragon, I’d definitely recommend this.