Anya and the Dragon: The magical adventures of a plucky young heroine

Anya and the Dragon by Sofiya Pasternack science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsAnya and the Dragon by Sofiya Pasternack science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsAnya and the Dragon by Sofiya Pasternack

With just a month before her bat mitzvah, Anya’s life is mostly preoccupied with keeping her family’s goats out of the garden, her worries over being unable to see the hidden threads of magic connecting everything in the world, and staying out of trouble both at home and in the neighboring village of Zmeyreka, since the local magistrate is actively working to throw Anya’s family out of their home. If only her beloved papa would come home from the Tsar’s faraway war against Sultan Suleiman! But then she stumbles across a bright-red river dragon named Håkon, a brand-new family of fools (literally; they utilize fool’s magic, and the seven sons are all named Ivan) moves into town, and dangerous men in the tsar’s employ arrive in pursuit of the dragon. Eventually, Anya is forced into a terrible position: help her family by not involving herself in the sudden swirl of activity, or help her newfound friends in defiance of the tsar’s edicts. What’s a Kievan Rus’ girl to do?

Sofiya Pasternack’s debut novel is a charming one, filled with Jewish traditions and history and augmented heavily with elements of classic Russian folklore. Anya and the Dragon (2019) moves quickly, as one might expect for a MG novel, setting up plot points and character development with efficiency. Anya’s thoughtfulness and natural reticence is balanced nicely by her friend Ivan’s gregarious bull-in-a-china shop enthusiasm, and the villagers she’s on good terms with each add something special to the story. Her family, comprised of her mother, her Babulya and Dyedka (grandmother and grandfather), the domovoi house-spirit, and the eternally-hungry goat Zvezda, is equally charming.

Sofiya Pasternack

Sofiya Pasternack

The dragon-hunters, particularly a Varangian man named Sigurd, are appropriately scary figures, and the ways in which Sigurd puts Anya and Ivan into danger are legitimate threats. Strangely, I had trouble believing in the growing friendship between Anya and Håkon — his aloof, difficult personality throughout most of the novel often makes it hard to see why Anya and Ivan would constantly put their lives in danger to save him. Meanwhile, her interactions with other humans and various types of magical creatures are far more rewarding and understandable. And ultimately, Anya is forced to make a choice that ends up not being the choice she thinks she’s making, and which doesn’t have the consequences that one would expect from a drastic action. It’s an odd conclusion to the story, but one which leaves room for Pasternack to explore in subsequent books.

Anya and the Dragon is a fun read, geared toward a middle-grade audience that’s too young for Katherine Arden’s WINTERNIGHT trilogy, but still enjoyable for adults. I’ll be interested to see what the second book in the ANYA series, Anya and the Nightingale, has in store.

Published in 2019. This lush tale of magic and dragons is a gem for any adventure-seeking middle grader and perfect for fans of Aru Shah and the End of Time. Anya and the Dragon is the story of fantasy and mayhem in tenth century Eastern Europe, where headstrong eleven-year-old Anya is a daughter of the only Jewish family in her village. When her family’s livelihood is threatened by a bigoted magistrate, Anya is lured in by a friendly family of fools, who promise her money in exchange for helping them capture the last dragon in Kievan Rus. This seems easy enough, until she finds out that the scary old dragon isn’t as old—or as scary—as everyone thought. Now Anya is faced with a choice: save the dragon, or save her family.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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