This epic, high fantasy rooted in the Polish folklore focuses on a land tormented by an evil, sentient forest (the Wood) that can only be held in check by the magic of wizards. The wizard who lives near the provincial village of Dvernik in the kingdom of Polnya, known as The Dragon, selects one teenage girl every 10 years as a tribute. The novel begins when the protagonist Agnieszka is unexpectedly selected and brought to the Dragon’s castle, The Tower. There she’s made to perform domestic chores and the Dragon trains her in simple magical spells, frequently berating her for her clumsiness and unruly appearance. From this “Beauty and the Beast” scenario it’s not surprising that these two will fall in love.
It turns out that Agnieszka is in fact skilled in magic although not in the way that The Dragon expects. As she becomes more experienced, her compassion moves her to challenge The Dragon’s pragmatic approach of using magic to simply hold back the approach of the Wood. Instead she liberally applies magic to rescue people trapped by the Wood and pushes the Dragon toward more aggressively combating the evils of the Wood (yes, this book can totally be read as a metaphor of the 2016 Democratic primary campaign).
Agnieszka ends up finding herself thrown into the politics of the royal family and into the ultimate conflict against the Wood. It’s grim and gory but with a satisfying ending. I found the book a bit too long and humorless, but a good example of informing a women-centered heroic narrative with elements of classic folklore.