Read an ARC from the publisher
Content warning: child abuse, body horror, blood, gore
Three servants serve the three Jaga sisters. Marynka serves Red Jaga as Midday, Beata serves White Jaga as morning, and Zosia serves Black Jaga as Midnight. These girls are monsters in the name of magic, which is only powered by prince’s hearts. Karnawał presents the opportunity for trickery, and both girls seize the opportunity to go after Prince Józef, one with the purest heart yet discovered.
What unfolds is a wonderful, wintery tale of rivalry, devotion, monstrosity, and what it means to be free of one’s past.
Marynka and Zosia are very evil, very driven, but also very stupid. It is absolutely wonderful to see them try to out-maneuver each other while trying to get themselves killed or caught up in international politics. The rivalry is intense, bitter, with the girls having more in common than they think. The theme of proving yourself to a guardian is painfully raw and real here, as being a witch’s servant isn’t easy. The book explores some of the question of what do children owe the people who raise them. It is intense, but not without opportunities for processing and healing.
The correct use of Polish diminutives and last names gave me such a profound sense of relief. Though this is a secondary world fantasy, the nods are not subtle at all, and it really works for establishing the politics surrounding the main rivalry plot. Fantasy!Poland is sandwiched between Fantasy!Prussia and Fantasy!Russia in a time period on the cusp of the first partition which wiped the country off the map. The attention-to-detail also works with the depiction of Warszów as a multi-cultural city featuring not just Christians, but Jews and Muslims as well. The world-building and over-story are intricate in the way history is, which only adds to the tension.
For example, I deeply loved Józef as a character. He’s a prince madly in love with his country and will do anything to save her. He feels like a hero from a classic Polish epic. But he has his own specific hurts, such as with his devoted friend-turned-traitor Kajetan. The way this relationship got entangled with the story of the witch’s servants added so many layers to the tale. Though Józef has a pure heart, it’s not one dimensional. There are no clear heroes and villains, just protagonists and antagonists going after what they want in equal measure.
The aesthetic in this novel is also impeccable. It’s perfect for anyone who loves the more light-hearted aspects of winter: fluffy snow fall, glittering balls, sleigh rides, and ice skating.