When I finished this book, I was sure it would get no more than a 3 star rating. But it stuck with me. Now, a month after finishing it, some of the scenes still “flash upon that inward eye”. When that happens, you can’t give less than four stars.
It’s not a perfect novel by any means. The “beauty and the beast” aspect of the novel is, I think, sadly out of place. It felt like the romance was tacked on afterwards. There were almost no compelling reasons for the two leads to fall in love. And the sex was catastrophically misused.
This is an important point, I think. There is this amazing scene when Agnieszka first discovers her wild magic together with the Dragon. It’s pure poetry by Naomi Novik. I was breathless as I read it, mostly because the process she described was so similar to the kind of intangible magic that occurs in choirs when performing on stage. An intense empathy between people sharing a creative act.
Then, suddenly, there’s this sexual intimacy and tension. It’s as if in the middle of a Mozart opera somebody suddenly starts to scream “The Ride of the Valkyries” at the top of their lungs. It doesn’t work. Their intimacy in magic would have worked far better if it didn’t have the sexual aspect.
This is also a matter of personal preference, but the light tone of most of the novel also didn’t fit the rather graphic sex scene in the end of the book. Just gratuitous.
Still, the central conflict, the amazing Polish woodsy setting, the “bad guy”, and the “big reveal” at the end were magical. I almost wish that the backstory would have been more of the “front story” in this case, because it was rich and deep and rewarding. The images I have still with me are almost all from the last forty pages of the book, which were simply masterful.
Then the romance intrudes again at the very end, and changed what would have been an easy 5 star into a barely 4 star book. Oh well. Still enjoyable.