5 out of 5 stars.
I was given an ARC of this work.
I absolutely adored this, it is fantastic. It is a fairy-tale style novel, written in a modern voice, but with the fantasy and charm you would expect from an old tale. Agnieszka’s village is ruled by a Wizard (named Dragon), who kidnaps a maiden every decade to come live with him. He was supposed to have picked Agnieszka’s best friend, Kasia, who is pretty and smart and can cook. Instead, he picks Agnieszka, who cannot manage to keep herself unsmudged for more then half an hour at a time. It turns out she has magical power, and Dragon is willing to teach her (or at least grump at her until she catches on herself). Most of the time Agnieszka would much rather do things by hand instead of by magic, but when her best friend Kasia is taken into the evil, enveloping Woods, her magic may be the only way to rescue her friend.
This book is not a rewrite of any particular fairy tale, though it does allude a few times to Baba Yaga, but it certainly reads like one, even without the dispassionate narrative style found in older fairy tales. The flavour is a tad Eastern European, especially the proper nouns, but it does not stick close enough to that tradition that I would not recommend it for fans of any type of fairy tale.
The two main relationships are between Agnieszka and Dragon, and Agnieszka and Kasia. It is fantastic that the relationship between friends is as important as a boy-girl relationship. A lot of YA literature seems to want to focus exclusively on relationships between the sexes, while ignoring, or at least relegating to a less important corner, the relationships girls can have with each other. I am also loving the very practical Agnieszka ignoring her magical powers for more mundane solutions. It really gives it a Patricia C. Wrede “Talking to Dragons” vibe (that is a compliment, I have read that series at least 5 times). It is a fairy tale with a feminist vibe. Both genders are important and both have representative characters that are both bad and good. Females talk to each other about something other than men and men talk to each other about something other than women. The morals are complicated and evil is shown to have personal roots, not just exist on its own.
The sinister, encroaching forest is a great villain (aside from the disgruntled wizard). Battling a large, natural force is always a great change from battling a completely sapient, single entity. How exactly do you fight a forest? Presumable with axes and fire, but that becomes more difficult when the trees start to fight back.
The characters grow in a way that is natural and graceful, and the world is entirely convincing and entrancing. This is a prime example that the modern, industrial world can still produce lush worlds of magic. Recommended to everyone!