Rated Reads


by Naomi Novik

Rated: Moderate

In the valley near the Wood where Agnieszka lives, the Dragon, a powerful wizard who lives in a tower, takes one girl from the villages to serve him, then lets her go, every 10 years. The girls who will be 17 in that year fear the possibility of being chosen, and their families dread it. Agnieszka (and everyone else) is sure her beautiful best friend Kasia will be chosen, so they are all taken aback when at the last moment, Agnieszka is selected instead. She herself is completely unprepared and is devastated when the cool, detached wizard magically pops her into his tower, shows her her modest room and leaves her to figure out what she needs to do.

No one knows for sure what the wizard, who is actually a century old or more but is immortal and young-appearing, does with the young women, and he doesn’t tell Agnieszka much except to bring him meals. But then, inexplicably, he starts trying to teach her how to do simple spells. She isn’t very good at them, but the Dragon keeps on, pressing her and showing his disdain when she messes up. She finally finds out that she actually has some potential as a witch herself, and that’s why she was taken this time, even though previous girls were there simply to serve.

The Dragon works endlessly in his tower to keep the evil power of the Wood at bay. It’s been there for years and is constantly expanding its borders, taking over villages and corrupting people and animals with its foulness. No one knows how it began or why, but it’s nearly impossible to fight off.

Agnieszka ends up having to use her seemingly limited skills far too early when the Wood threatens to make further inroads, attacking her village and more. When Kasia is taken into the Wood, Agnieszka dares to do the impossible — rescue her best friend and bring her back uncorrupted by the evil.

This sets off a chain of events in which the people of the whole country are affected, and Agnieszka must prove herself in the capital and be part of a full-scale battle against the Wood. It’s a scary prospect for her in so many ways, and on top of everything, she and the Dragon seem to be falling for each other, adding in more complication.

This story is complex and rich in detail and atmosphere. It’s essentially a Polish fairy tale set in the 1500s, where magic is real. I was caught up in it but the reading was slow going. I didn’t just breeze through it. But that turned out to be a blessing by the end, which was hugely satisfying and led me to want to just sit quietly within the story and appreciate it for all it contained. Just lovely.

Rated: Moderate. There is really no language. Violence occurs throughout, with people being hurt by monsters from the Wood and in battles full of swordplay and other bloody combat. Sexual content is mostly limited to two scenes, one very brief and one that is more lengthy (about a page and a half) and was surprisingly detailed (at least to me) for a book set as it was.

— Reviewed by Cathy Carmode Lim

Cathy Carmode Lim has been reviewing books for newspapers for about 20 years, two of which she was a book page editor. She founded Rated Reads in January 2008.

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