I have enjoyed the Temeraire books that I have read, so when I heard that Naomi Novik had written a stand-alone fantasy that was nominated for a Nebula, I had to do it as part of my Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge (https://www.worldswithoutend.com/roll…). I borrowed it from the library and it took a while for me to get to it. That being said, I enjoyed it enough that I kept it even though there was another hold on it and willingly accumulated the overdue fines.
This is a fractured fairy tale with a tone somewhat between the relative lightheartedness and innocence of Frozen and the grimness and cynicism of Wicked. Agnieszka, our protagonist, lives in a village where a Dragon takes a tribute of a young maiden every ten years. Except the Dragon is a wizard and as far as everyone knows he doesn’t eat people, they just never want to go home again after they’ve been in the Tower.
I was expecting some of the modern anachronistic cynicism of Shrek at this point, but no. This world is a mishmash of fairy tale elements all gently woven together in an almost seamless way, grounded mostly in Russian folk tales with a certain feel of Sleeping Beauty and Briar Rose for good measure. There are monsters, and heroic princes, and wizards and witches, kings and castles and vengeful queens. Except that none of those characters behave in the traditional fairy tale way and there’s good and evil in all of them. It’s as though Novik asked herself, “If all the characters in fairy tales were actually real people, how might they react?” The best part about it is that she managed to tell that story with almost no (real) anachronisms at all.
Another reviewer (Khanh the Grinch) gave the book a scathing review, mostly because of Agnieszka’s “Special Snowflakeness”. She’s not wrong. The book does suffer from a few characterization tropes and that is one of them. (view spoiler)[Another is the protagonist eventually falling in love with the emotionally abusive asshole who’s been treating her like dirt from the first moment they met.. I *loathe* that particular trope and wish that we would stop telling that story and stop teaching our young women to hang on to the guy they’re infatuated with, even though he’s a jerk, because “love will conquer all”. No it won’t; not in that way, anyway. (hide spoiler)]
And to be fair, I don’t see how the story could have been written without the “special peasant girl” trope, and part of the point of that was to flip fairy tale tropes on their heads. I don’t know if anyone remembers their fairy tales, but the girls who make it out alive usually do so by being good, well-behaved girls with a surplus of whatever virtue the writer wants to encourage obedient, proper young women to have. Also, they are inevitably beautiful and graceful and perfect. Agnieszka is neither beautiful nor graceful, she makes mistakes, and she ultimately does well because she ignores instructions she’s been given and does what she knows to be right, no matter what she is told to do.
That’s a trope in modern YA fiction, to be sure, but it flips fairy tales completely; and not in encouragement to “be a complete rebel” either, which is where Wicked, Shrek and Frozen go. Agnieszka is, for the most part, willing to go along to get along. She just trusts her own instincts.
I also disagree with Khanh the Grinch’s opinion that the Dragon is a jerk just for the sake of being a jerk. No, he has reasons, you just don’t find them out until near the end of the book. I think they’re plausible and understandable, which is all I ask out of my fiction. They may not be “good” reasons in another’s opinion, but who am I to judge?
But ultimately despite these issues I really enjoyed the book, and I will probably take my daughters to see the movie when it comes out, if it doesn’t disappear into Hollywood Limbo.
And if I might add one last thing, I would just like to thank the artist for doing THE BEST SCI-FI FANTASY BOOK COVER I HAVE EVER SEEN. You know why I say that? Because obviously THIS GUY ACTUALLY READ THE DAMN BOOK! Everything that appears on the cover is integral to the story, and it’s even done in such a way that you have to read the book to figure out why. It’s an enormous pet peeve of mine how nobody pays attention to details when they make sci-fi/fantasy book covers. For instance, did you know that Honor Harrington is Eurasian? You would have no idea if you just looked at the book covers! Thank you for getting it right. I ought to give the book a star for that alone, but that wouldn’t be fair to the plethora of other writers who suffer from bad book covers.
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