Uprooted

by Naomi Novik

Cover image

Publisher: Del Rey
Copyright: 2015
Printing: 2016
ISBN: 0-8041-7904-2
Format: Kindle
Pages: 465

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Agnieszka lives in a small peasant village on the border of the Wood. The malevolent forest is the source of dark corruption, illnesses that turn people into ravaging monsters, and lures and traps for the unwary who disappear into the Wood. Or, worse, return and appear the same, and then do horrific things, smiling all the time.

This neighboring storehouse of horrors is not what occupies Agnieszka's thoughts at the start of the book, however. Instead, it's the village's protector against the Wood: the Dragon. The Dragon is not a flying lizard; he's a man, a wizard who has lived in his tower for living memory and fights back against the Wood with magic. And, once every ten years, he takes a girl from a village. They go to his tower and serve him for ten years, and then leave, generally to move to some far-away city and never return to their village. Each says afterwards that the Dragon never did anything untoward to them. No one entirely believes them.

Agnieszka was born in the year that makes her one of the candidates for being taken by the Dragon. But that's not what she's worried about. She's known for certain since she was a small child that her best friend, Kasia, would be the one taken by the Dragon. Kasia was always the exceptional one: the most beautiful, the most talented, the one who stood out among all the girls in the neighboring villages. And she's about to be taken out of Agnieszka's life, to a mysterious and unknown fate.

It will hopefully surprise no fantasy reader (and hence not be much of a spoiler) that awkward Agnieszka, who can't keep her dress unstained for more than five minutes and has none of the skills that Kasia has, is the one the Dragon chooses.

I think a warning is important here, since I'm about to recommend this book highly. However, it is very fond of its stereotypes. Most of the other wizards are men, and they focus on books and formal understanding of magic. The one female wizard whose magic we see in some detail is a smith described as wearing male clothing. Uprooted then introduces a different type of magic that's much more intuitive, described largely through natural metaphors, and doesn't play well with formal rules... and is practiced by a woman. This is, unfortunately, persistently gendered, although the book never comes right out and calls it female magic. There are also quite a few traditional gender roles scattered through the rest of the book (although it does get a bit of a pass due to its obvious deep roots in traditional fairy tales).

Uprooted is still an excellent book despite this, but it's best read when you're in the mood to tolerate this sort of story. If you go in feeling irritated about gender stereotypes, you'll probably get frustrated by the book, overwhelming its merits. Best saved for a forgiving mood (or skipped entirely if this style of story just doesn't sound fun).

The beginning of Uprooted is about Agnieszka finding her feet in her bizarre arrangement with the Dragon, who turns out to be nothing like what either she or the reader expected. I think her panic and confusion drags on a little long, but Novik makes up for that by the delightful descriptions of Agnieszka's eventual understanding and the Dragon's frustrated consternation. Fantasy is full of prickly, arrogant wizards, but few have felt quite so human to me as the Dragon. Agnieszka is clearly nothing like he expected or like he's dealt with before, and his path from arrogant contempt to outrage to prickly confusion to uncomfortable respect is a delight.

This is, of course, a coming-of-age story for Agnieszka, and by the end the book deals with both the origins of the Wood and some sort of resolution. But the path there wanders through an exploration of a rather interesting magic system, quite a lot of court intrigue, and Agnieszka persistently defying everyone's expectations. As with the introductory panic and confusion, I could have done with less of her awkward bumbling at court (in general, I think the book could have been a bit tighter), but once I reached the second half of the book I couldn't put it down. I've previously read a fair chunk of Novik's Temeraire series, which were fun (at least in spots), but Uprooted is definitely better.

There is a fair bit of horror-tinged stuff in this book, as well as the stereotypes mentioned above, so it won't be for everyone. But I usually hate horror of any kind, and I still loved this. Agnieszka is sufficiently positive and solution-focused that the story never falls into the constant fear and panic and disgust that I particularly dislike in horror. If you're in the mood for a good fantasy coming-of-age story coupled with delightful disruption of the life of a prickly, cynical, but surprisingly ethical wizard, give this one a try.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2016-10-04

Last modified and spun 2016-10-17