Dragonswood, by Janet Lee Carey (Dial, 2012, YA/upper middle grade, 403 pages)
When the main character gets tortured in the first thirty pages of a book, I become doubtful (waves to Queen of Attolia). When, for the first fifty or so pages, things continue to be anxious, I become increasingly unconvinced that the book that will provide the pleasant escape I seek on a Saturday morning when late afternoon company is coming and the house is a disaster (I would not want to read, say, Finnekin of the Rock while planning a large dinner party).
Happily for me, I had read enough reviews of Dragonswood to know that it wasn't a dark and grim and bloody story. And I read the end (which didn't spoil much, and was reassuring). At any event, here I am, with Dragonswood having been read and enjoyed, and a small fraction of the house tidying completed during breaks.
Brief synopsis: In a medievally almost-Britain, a girl named Tess is accused of witchcraft, and tortured. She and the two girls whose names were wrung for her by the inquisitor take refugee in Dragonswood--the forbidden sanctuary for dragons and the Fey established by the old queen and king. But it isn't at all clear how Tess and her friends will find a true sanctuary for themselves on an island where witch hunting runs amok, a twisted regent has control of the kingdom, and human people are starting to look hungrily at the protect lands of the forest...
Meg longs for her husband and child. Poppy longs for someone to love her for herself, not her beauty. And Tess, abused all her life by her father (so much so that one ear, boxed more times than she can remember, is deaf) longs for a chance to live her life according to her own desires--drawing, riding, climbing trees, and answering whatever it is that calls her to cross into the forbidden world of Dragonswood. With, perhaps, the added bonus of a partner in life who will respect her as an equal.
Little does Tess know that she might well get her happy ending (this is me being cunningly unspoilerish), thanks to the intervention of the mysterious folk who have found sanctuary in the heart of Dragonswood...
This is a book I would give in a heartbeat to a twelve or thirteen year old girl. Once past that the graphic violence, witch-torturing-wise, it has a very pleasant fairy tale feel to it, with lots of magical happenings and adventurings--nothing too twisted and convoluted, but interesting enough to keep my attention. The love between Tess and the character with whom she ends up is romantic, fairy-tale love (all they get to do on page (as in "on stage") is a bit of kissing near the end).
Some weight is given the story by the fact that Tess has been damaged, both emotionally and mentally, by the abuse that she has suffered, and a significant part of the story arc deals with her resultant fears and uncertainties; however, this too is fairy tale-ish in its conclusion, when her validation comes (primarily) from her romantic other (although she does get some validation from her interactions with various dragons, which was nice).
Even though I'm in favor of things working out just fine, my one substantive quibble with the book is how easily this is accomplished in the end...it was a bit hard to swallow an unpleasant character's change of heart. My other reservation is that the change of mood and pace, from the first dark part of the book (Tess in mortal peril from the witch-hunters) to the second (Tess's journey shaped in mostly pleasant ways by others, although she does exercise some brave agency in true fantasy heroine-style) is a bit jarring. That being said, I'm glad, for purely selfish reasons relating to my own need for pleasant escapism, that the mood did change!
Recommended in particular for fans of Jessica Day George--it has a very similar feel to both her dragon series and to her fairy tale retellings. And now I must find Dragon's Keep, the 2008 companion novel to this one (set a few generations before this one)...
p.s. Regarding historical fantasy--I'm not adding Dragonswood to my list of Historical Fantasy. Even though it is set in an alternate Britain at the time of the Crusades, it felt too much like a fantasy realm, taking place, as it does, in an imaginary kingdom with nothing more solid to make it historically situated than a few mentions of real people (Richard the Lionheart and his brother John).