Agnieszka lives in small village in a pastoral valley, the setting of which is strongly rooted in Polish folklore. There is a deep, dark, sinister, magical wood which extends into the valley, and out of the wood come horrors unspeakable. Every ten years, the “Dragon”, who is actually a wizard and the feudal lord, picks a girl and takes her to his tower. No one in the valley really knows why. Against all expectations, Agnieszka is taken by the wizard, and against her own expectations the wizard trains her in the magic arts. She is a poor student until she discovers that her brand of magic is closely entwined with nature and the forest.
I had a hard time with the beginning of this book. While the characters and the story are well-rounded and interesting, I had the feeling that all the sinister and mysterious stuff was going to turn into a big anti-climax. Happily, I was wrong. As Agnieszka’s journey into magic and the mysteries of The Wood continues, the political and epic sides of the story start revealing themselves. And that’s where things become really interesting. The use of a strict first person viewpoint for the book is a good choice, as it allows the reader to grow his understanding of the world along with our heroine, as she journeys from her tiny village into the much more cynical larger world. Another interesting aspect is how Ms. Novik manages to describe magic in a way that effectively communicates difficulty, effort, setbacks and dangers without making the whole thing seem hopelessly corny.