First, I’m not sure if I’m being entirely fair, here. I think that this book is an example of an author telling a story instead of telling the story. Telling the story: definitive. An impartial and more or less complete view of what is going on. Multiple perspectives can be used to complete the view, or reveal things slowly to the audience. Plot developments come because of character actions; having clever, active characters makes for suspense and speed. Sympathy for them is built up by watching them act, struggle to influence events, fail or succeed, and try again. Telling a story: narrowed or skewed focus with a definite aim in mind. Think of the difference between [generic war movie] and [war movie from the point of view of a soldier who gets PTSD, with the intention of proving war is hell]; needless to say, neither is inferior or superior. In the latter, tension and suspense come more from what happens to the characters than what they do; we sympathize with their reactions to events.
Novik had a particular aim in mind when she was writing this story, and wasn’t able to make it quite flow–so there are points at which she has to clumsily muscle the narrative onto the track she wants it to go on, rather than letting it follow its own logical direction. Lest I be rightly or wrongly accused of reading the story with an agenda of my own, let me add that: a story that veers off its own logical direction is objectively either 1) a misunderstanding by the reader, or 2) authorial bias. Novik ran out of plot about three quarters of the way through the book. Then, since she didn’t have a good way of connecting the actual plot to the climax she had in mind, she….skipped straight there and pretended they were still connected.
OK, what is the plot? It starts out very promisingly, with a galumphing heroine (Agnieszka) and a haunting villain: the Wood, a completely malevolent, hideously dangerous magical forest…which is expanding its borders. Our…”hero”…is The Dragon, a wizard with his very own tower who protects Agnes’ village, at the price of one fair maiden every ten years. For housekeeping (no, really.) JUUUUUST for housekeeping.
Everyone has long believed that the beautiful, talented Kasia will be chosen. Instead…Agnes. Agnes has absolutely no special gifts or talents, except for magic. The Dragon must, perforce, apprentice and teach her. The Dragon does not inform her of this, and Agnes is slightly too dense and intimidated to realize it for a while. This is a relatively amusing section, before Things Get Worse.
Things Get Worse (after a little preliminary warming up), when Kasia is taken into the Wood. Agnes, in defiance of all common sense, goes in to rescue her dearest friend–and gets her out. Mostly out. Mostly Kasia, that is. Because what is currently in control of Kasia’s body is The Wood, and no one has ever been cleansed of such a deep contamination. But Agnes, by dint of willful stupidity and enormous stubbornness, manages it. Kasia is freed.
And then Things Get Worse: the news gets out, and brings back with it the spoiled and headstrong Prince uh….(checks wiki) Marek. His mother, the Queen Hanna, was taken into the Wood twenty years previously, and he wants her back. He’s got thirty men and warhorses, a mage called The Falcon whose magic is inferior to The Dragon, and the threat of burning Kasia at the stake to blackmail Agnes into helping. At the expense of twenty-eight men and all the horses, they get the Queen out, all that’s left of her.
And then Things Get Worse. You see, the Wood isn’t just malevolent–it’s intelligent. And now it has a puppet in the capital–in the Royal family itself….But mainly, at this point, Things also Get more poorly-written. Characters are weak, actions are not taken; and explanations for the stall the action are unconvincing or just not present. Why did the King or crown prince not have a very simple If/Then plan for if Prince Marek returned alive? Why does no one have a plan? Why does the narrative stall for several chapters until all of the correct factors are in place for a (gasp, oh no, how could this have happened!) It Gets Worse?
There are three tropes I particularly dislike: cheap villains, lynch-pin villain, and fantasy books that are NOTHING but travelogues. The Abhorsen books are the most egregious examples I have ever in my entire life seen of the latter. Got a book about a necromantic threat to a kingdom? Spend twenty-eight chapters laboriously marching your heroes from point A to point B, and TWO FREAKING PAGES FOR THEM TO DEFEAT IT AT THE VERY END OF THE BOOK. I’m still annoyed about that series, and I only included it in this review in order to rant a bit. Actually, there’s none of that in this book at all. Ahem.
So, cheap villains are the people who exist to be odious to the hero. Not really a threat….just an annoyance. They are aristocrats who look down their noses at, and insist on protocol to the working-class hero who is trying to get things done; they are the schoolyard bully who blunders up on page four, pushes the hero over, laughs churlishly, and then wanders away again. They are the boorish male character who makes chauvinistic comments to the heroine…for no plot-relevant reason than to raise an emotional reaction in the audience and raise sympathy for the poor bullied, patronized, hero. They are lazy and cheap plot devices, and I don’t have patience for them. Raising sympathy for the hero can be done in a way that’s plot relevant. Just make the obstacles relevant to the plot, or to a plot.
Marek is a weak character and a cheap villain; his motivations are unconvincing. Is he: going into the Wood because he is a second son, and needs to shore up his reputation as a warrior prince? No. Is he going to retrieve his mother because the King seems about to remarry and this could jeopardize his position? (What position, he’s already the second son….?) But no. Is he going (or being sent, or being used as) to test the Wood before the crown commits to another push against it? No! Are there any strategic considerations present? Nope. It’s ’cause he’s a spoiled, headstrong idiot and he wants his Mommy back. No, seriously. He wants his Mommy back and that is it. He even (SPOILER) dies because he believes so strongly that Mommy is coming/has come back.
…So when it’s brought out that some of his other later actions are politically-motivated (he needs to do x so the council will vote for him)…it doesn’t convince. This is a person who has had in the past absolutely no political motivations, no long-term goals (besides Mommy), so why should there be any now?–and the audience is left with the nagging suspicion that he’s doing x because the author wants him to just give the heroes as much trouble as possible; he is a villain, after all.
And the lynch-pin villain? You know it: it’s when you win against the entire horde by killing the queen; or when Sauron’s tower and all his armies collapse like puppets when you throw the Ring into Mount Doom. It’s cheap, it’s a cheat, it’s unimaginitive and lazy. And yes indeed, it is used here.
It also gets worse than that: the Wood–the terrifying spectre of malevolence, cunning, evil, the personnification of nature as a force of chaos and reckless change, etc, etc….gets explained and redeemed. And while it’s always annoying to have something as mysterious and dreaded go completely unexplained….it’s almost always a letdown for the audience to find out everything about it. Hints and implications are so much better, and by golly this is a long review, isn’t it? (I’ve been adding to it more or less all day as I’ve had time between practice sets.)
Rated: I need to read more science fiction again. SF doesn’t have problems like this…