Harvard linguist Melisande Stokes is approached by government operative Tristan Lyons with a request to translate a large number of ancient documents, once she has signed a non-disclosure agreement. As she works through them she notices a large number of references to magic. It turns out that magic actually existed until 1851, when the continued progress of technology led to its disappearance. Things take a mysterious turn when they try to build a chamber within which magic can work in the present day, and a surviving witch contacts Melisande via Facebook. In short order, the shadowy “Department of Diachronic Operations” is born, using magic to travel back in time and change history. As the bureaucrats get involved, events immediately veer off in unexpected and undesired directions.
The backbone of the narrative is Melisande’s “Diachronicle” (trust a linguist to pun on a top-secret technical term) where she describes her adventures with D.O.D.O. Large chunks, however, are diary entries and letters by other characters, as well as transcripts from messaging apps, wiki entries and so on. The contrasting styles, and frequent clues as to relative technical ability given by the “author” of specific passages, makes D.O.D.O and its denizens come alive, as if the reader is a fly on the wall during secret operations, meetings, and time travel.
The premise is clever, and more than a bit silly. However, the treatment of the entire situation by the government bureaucracy is most certainly not. And that is one of the important themes of this book. The intersecting shenanigans of bureaucrats, academics and operatives working together make for hilarious passages of dry humour, while at the same time the reader is appalled at the lack of common sense of bureaucrats who spend too little time in the real world. Even the use “official-ese” can change perceptions, and perception is a very important part of this story, on several levels.
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.