This book is special. There’s nothing particularly novel about the story. It is a very old story (or perhaps several old stories if you prefer). There’s a wizard in a tower in a valley with a dark, scary forest. The wizard takes young girls from the village to serve in his tower, and blah blah blah, it’s practically a cliche, or several cliches, really. But it is the telling that counts, and Novik tells with remarkable care and detail. She takes classic fairy-tale material and makes it real for a modern reader.
The forest isn’t just a place where evil dwells; it is itself corrupt and it spreads corruption if the wind just happens to blow the wrong way. The people of the valley are kin to those who live near volcanoes or on floodplains or in tornado alley. They remember the last time the world turned against them, and they are always vigilant for the next.
The wizard, Dragon, is powerful and arrogant. He looks down on the people of the valley. He’s preoccupied with his work, but he comes out to fight back the forest and cleanse the corruption it spreads. He is the protector of the valley, but he is not loved.
Again, it’s not new, but Novik spins such an exquisite tapestry from these worn threads that they are given new life (speaking of cliches); they are given weight they do not normally have. And the magic… oh, the magic. We are introduced to spells: long hours of exhausting recitations, precise pronunciations and rhythms, formulas of words. And then as we become accustomed to this (ok, it’s going to be *that* kind of magic), our protagonist, Agnieszka, finds that she can perform magic quite expertly but in a completely different way. Suddenly we have yin and yang, and we realize that magic is neither. It is something much greater than either of their approaches, and again, it is deep and weighty and oh so believable. This depth and realism pervades the whole book. Novik creates a world that is broad and deep.
I will confess that I found the ending a little disappointing. This is not so much a criticism of the resolution as it is praise of the other 9/10ths of the book. Finally peeking behind the curtain was not a let-down; it was simply underwhelming after the journey.