by Naomi Novik
First sentence: “Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy given to me by the publisher rep.
Content: There’s one graphic, but not explicit, sex scene. It’ll be in the science-fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore.

I picked this one up because our Random House rep said it was based on Beauty and the Beast, and we all know how much I love a fairy tale retelling. But, I didn’t count on how engrossing this book would be.

The rep was right: it is loosely based on Beauty and the Beast, but it’s so much more than that. In this valley in Polyna, their resident wizard, who goes by the Dragon, takes one girl every ten years to his tower. When he’s done with them, they don’t come back to the villages, so everyone (of course) assumes the worst. This year, a picking year, everyone guesses that he will take Kasia, our narrator’s, Neishka, best friend. But the Dragon comes, and he picks Neishka instead.

At first, this is terrifying: Neishka isn’t refined, she isn’t skilled for much of anything (except getting dirty), and she doesn’t want to be in the castle with this scary magician. But, as the book goes on, she discovers hidden talents inside herself: she’s a witch, one that is just as powerful as the Dragon, albeit wielding a different sort of magic from him. And its the combination of their magic that is able to confront the real evil in their country: the Wood.

I don’t want to give away much more than that, because this one is best discovered page by page. Novik has a way of pulling one into the story; this started out as a treadmill book (read twice a week for a half hour), but soon became the one I was spending all my time with. I wanted to experience Neishka’s story as it unfolded, with all the twists and turns and slow reveals and intricate pay offs.

M texted, recently, looking for a “Laini Taylor-esque” book, and honestly, this is what I thought of when she asked for that. Novik’s world-building is solid and always in the service of the story, rather than something separate. And, while her words aren’t gorgeous or lyrical, they’re more than pedestrian. They serve the characters and the plot, and make the whole work together just marvelously.

Just about perfect.

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