In which we discuss the brilliant, beauteous, dark, and enchanting new fairy tale from Naomi Novik.
Author: Naomi Novik
Publisher: Del Rey / Macmillan
Publication Date: May 18 / May 21
Hardcover: 437 Pages
Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.
Her people rely on the cold, ambitious wizard, known only as the Dragon, to keep the wood’s powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman must be handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as being lost to the wood.
The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows – everyone knows – that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia – all the things Agnieszka isn’t – and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.
But no one can predict how or why the Dragon chooses a girl. And when he comes, it is not Kasia he will take with him.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did we get this book: ARCs from the publisher
Format (e- or p-): Ebook
Let me preface this review by getting something off my chest straight away: I loved this book with the intensity of a thousand supernovas.
The Dragon from Agnieszka’s village is not a creature but a man, a wizard who protects villagers against the always-expanding, living, corrupted Wood. In exchange for his protection all he asks is for a young woman to be handed over to him as a servant (and perhaps something more, so says the whispering grapevine) for ten years. After ten years, the girl is free to go back but for some reason – no one really knows why – they never go back home.
Agnieszka and Kasia are best friends who grew up knowing they would both be up for the next choosing. They – and everybody in their village – know that Kasia will be the chosen one for her beauty and grace. They have prepared all their lives for this day and for their separation but when the Dragon comes, it is Agnieszka who is taken.
Uprooted from everything that she holds dear, apart from family and her beloved friend Kasia, Agnieszka is thrust into a new life up in the Dragon’s remote tower with no hope for escape, in the company of a man she barely knows. Getting to grips with what has happened is only the beginning, for deep inside Agnieszka, there is power and knowledge yearning to get out. And just as she is learning to cope, the unthinkable happens: the Wood comes back and takes Kasia.
I think about Uprooted and I keep going back to these words: “elemental”, “basic”, “primal” and of course “rooted.”
And I understand that these words are often used in negative ways when describing a book but here I want to use them in the most positive way imaginable.
Because there is something elemental about the way Uprooted is built: it delves into the origins of storytelling, using the foundation of fairytales to tell a story that is at once familiar and comforting as well as subversive and progressive. And extremely beautiful. And somehow, hilarious? Also, romantic. Clever. Oh yes, and sexy.
Uprooted tells this story about a young woman who discovers who she is in the most elemental way: the story goes deep into questions of agency, of power, or discovery, of passion, sexual awakening, friendship, family, loyalty and more. In many ways, these things are the root of who we are as people and in building this story around these questions, Naomi Novik cleverly goes back to fundamentals to tell a story that is everything but trivial.
And she does that in more ways than one. Because yes, of course, this is Agnieszka’s story first and foremost but this is also the story of her world – of the Wood, of the people around the Wood and the history behind it all. It is also about the history of magic and how it works and the difference between learned magic and intuitive magic – the magic of roots and the magic of intellect. It is also a story that looks at mortality in a deeply felt way. One of the most affecting scenes in the novel is when Agnieszka realises that as a witch, she will live a very long life, possibly outliving everything and everyone she knows. Part of her coming of age is coming to terms with that and finding a way to move forward that will serve her loving personality well.
It is also the story of the Dragon, a man steeped in a type of learned magic, someone who goes through an awakening just as Agnieszka does.
But above all, at the centre of this story, its focus and its beating heart lies Agnieszka and Kasia’s friendship. This is a where the story goes back to, this is where the story plants its roots and beautiful uses it as juxtaposition to another story of sisterhood back in the past of their world. Their friendship feels real because it is both close and difficult for how their lives had been to this point and because it grows and evolves as a living thing in front of our eyes. They are fierce, these two girls, extremely loyal to one another and the way Kasia’s own story develops is amazing.
Reminiscent of books by every author I love – Juliet Marillier, Megan Whalen Turner, Diana Wynne Jones and Robin McKinley – Uprooted is not only a perfect book but also a perfect book for me. I have nothing whatsoever to criticize here. I wholeheartedly recommend it as one of the best books I read this year, lately, ever.
I will also preface my part of the review by stating outright: I fucking love this book.
If you cross-pollinated the lyrical prose, woodland setting, and female characterization of Juliet Marillier (one of my all-time favorite authors), with some of the intensity (sexual and political), worldbuilding, sharp magic of Jacqueline Carey, with a dash of old school fantastical Robin McKinley on top, you might get something close to Uprooted. Truly, comparing the book to these other powerhouses of fantasy sells the book short – because Uprooted is brilliant, beauteous, dark, and enchanting on its own.
As Ana says, Uprooted is at its core a fairy tale. It’s a fairy tale that uses familiar elements that lure unsuspecting readers in – the great and powerful Wizard/Dragon, who demands tribute of a village daughter every 10 years (as Dragons from fantastic tales are wont to do); the headstrong heroine, whose fate seems sealed and dedicated to a provincial life but is suddenly uprooted; the encroaching darkness that must be stopped before the world is lost to the forces of evil.
All of these elements are known quantities in fairy tales – the magic with Uprooted lies with the nuances and subversions (some subtle, others not so much) that Naomi Novik weaves into her yarn. That, and the fact that Novik has a killer way of writing action, magic, and danger that literally has you on the edge of your seat. (On two separate occasions I missed my subway stop to work because I was so engrossed in Uprooted – it’s the Thea test for true submersion in a story.)
There are many aspects of the book that demand deeper examination, but I’m going to focus on the three things that sang to me the most: the rules of magic in Agnieszka’s world (and related to that, overall worldbuilding and deep-rooted corruption at the heart of the Wood), the subversive thematic elements (especially concerning female characters and traditional notions of heroism), and the powerful relationships that define each of these characters.
Uprooted tells the story of a young village woman named Agnieszka, born in a year where she is eligible to be taken by the Dragon – a powerful wizard who protects her village and the rest of the kingdom from the encroaching evil of the poisoned Wood. Every ten years, the Dragon leaves his marble tower and selects a girl from the villages of the valley to live with him. No one knows what the Dragon does with these girls during their servitude – just that after ten years, the girls emerge from the tower, free and healthy, but always determined to leave the valley and village behind for bigger and better things.
When Agnieszka is inexplicably chosen by the Dragon – and not her best friend Kasia, whom everyone believed would be chosen – her life is completely turned around. See, Agnieszka has magic – and the Dragon is determined, in his own churlish, brutal way, to teach her how to use her skills. It’s the law, after all.
Little does Agnieszka (or the Dragon) know that her magic is strong, and it’s different than any of the measured incantations and spells known to wizards in this world. And this, dear readers, this is what I loved very much about Uprooted. Nieshka (a nickname for Agnieszka)’s magic is the magic of intuition and storytelling, of song and memory. Initially, she struggles with the Dragon’s way of doing spells, tripping over the incantations and deliberate instructions he has laid out for her, earning his self-righteous scorn. What is so beautiful about Uprooted and this magical system, however, is the idea that not all magic need be applied the same way – I like to think of it as the difference between various kinds of intelligence and skill. Magic is approached as an academic feat and a science by the great wizards of the land, but Agnieszka takes an intuitive approach, trusting her feelings and her own style in order to affect spellcraft. I love this variation, the different descriptions of magic, and the spell-working throughout Uprooted – particularly as the different wizards learn to work together (or against each other) to their own ends.
Related to the powerful magic imagery, the worldbuilding itself in Uprooted should be mentioned. In this world, there are two kingdoms frequently at war – Polnya, the kingdom to which Niseshka, her Dragon, and her village belong, and the neighboring Rosya. Ever since Polnya’s queen was wooed away from home twenty years prior and lost to the Wood, tensions between the two kingdoms have run high – fraught with jealousy, with an angry King and a quick-tempered Polnyan prince named Marek, diplomacy between the two lands has been hard. In Uprooted, we see the insidious, malicious workings of the corrupted Wood that haunt these two kingdoms, that play human and wizard against each other out of hate and insatiable rage. The Wood is dark, and deep, and wrong – it has a consciousness of its own, an agenda of its own, and it worms its corruption into anyone who passes under its shade. The Wood itself is a character, its true motivations and backstory not revealed until Uprooted‘s final act. I was terrified by the sheer malice of the Wood in this book, of Novik’s skill in creating a truly formidable menace that, Sauron-like, pulses under every war and misunderstanding and motivation throughout the book. The nightmarish creatures that emerge from the Wood, its Walkers and Heart Trees and Wolves, they are the stuff of great horror. And I loved reading every twisted, decaying second.
Finally, since Ana has covered the beauty of the relationships – particularly the friendship between Agnieszka and Kasia – so well already, I’ll just add my voice to the praise and say yes. I love the subversion here, that Nieshka sacrifices all she holds dear to save her beloved best friend; the magic that lays all the good and all the ugly truths between them bare. I love the slow-burning romance that unfolds between Nieshka and her love interest, just as I appreciate the fact that the Dragon is not perfect, or idealized or even desirable. I love the challenges that Nieshka issues to the shining Prince Marek of legend, to the most powerful Wizard in the land, to the courtiers and magicians who scorn her. Most of all, I love Nieshka’s belief in herself and her ability to follow the things she knows to be true – this takes emotional bravery as well as magical and physical skill.
There is little not to love in Uprooted. If I had to point out a quibble, it would be that the ending and the truth behind the Wood and its evil are rushed in the novel’s last 50 pages – I almost wish this were a series (I hardly ever say that), or that the story of the Wood was revealed more slowly over the course of the novel, instead of parlayed at the end.
Yet… this quibble is minor. Uprooted is a beautiful, nearly-flawless read, and I loved it wholeheartedly from first chapter to empowering and heart-rendering finale.
Recommended for all, and absolutely one of my top 10 books of 2015.
Ana: 10 – And a top 10 of 2015
Thea: 9 – Damn Near Perfection, and a top 10 book for me in 2015 as well.
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