SPOILER ALERT!

Review: Uprooted

Uprooted - Naomi Novik

I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

 

I’m a little ashamed to admit that I have had several of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series on my shelves for years, and had yet to touch them prior to starting Uprooted. That has since been remedied; I couldn’t finish Uprooted without developing the compulsion to read everything Novik has written.

 

Uprooted is the story of Agnieszka, a girl only remarkable for her ability to look like a complete disaster in any and every situation. She resides in farming village in a valley that is essentially nestled in an alternate version of medieval Eastern Europe, which is overseen by a mysterious magician known as the Dragon. Every 10 years, the Dragon comes to the valley and takes a young girl to live with him in his castle, without explanation or apology, an event the locals have christened the Choosing. After her decade is up, none of these chosen companions stay in the valley for long- they always seem to need to escape, and quickly. But the Dragon protects the valley from the encroachment of the Wood that surrounds and is slowly overtaking it with a dark and twisted evil, so the girls are willingly, if sadly, given without much complaint. It has always been assumed in the valley that Agnieszka’s best friend, the beautiful and brave Kasia, will be the Dragon’s next choice, but to everyone’s shock, he takes Agnieszka instead.

 

This book is profoundly hard not to spoil. The official description provided by the publisher covers a scant few opening chapters, leaving over 400 pages of pure discovery, and I don’t want to ruin that for anyone. If you want to read more, please see behind the spoiler tag.

 

SPOILERS AHOY

 

 

What is it about Uprooted that prompted me to tackle the author’s entire oeuvre? It is, at a basic level, a story of magical apprenticeship. It is not fundamentally different from other stories of its kind, but several things set it apart, like its fully-realized magic system, the tangibility of its setting, and its ability to use fantasy tropes to its advantage rather than detriment. But what makes it stand head and shoulders above its ostensible category is the focus on friendship over romance.

 

It was always assumed by the village that Kasia would be the Dragon’s choice, and the unexpected outcome of the Choosing leaves tensions and confusions in her friendship with Agnieszka that make it more substantial than the female friendships (what few there are) that are common in fantasy stories. They are neither set up to be in competition with each other, nor to choose romance over one another. When Agnieszka discovers that Kasia has been taken by the Wood, she runs to her rescue, while the Dragon-- perhaps the world’s most gifted wizard-- merely gives her up as a lost cause. And their friendship is defined by what is not said as much as by what is; the expectation that Kasia will be chosen shapes her childhood in such a way that she resents the other children who are more openly beloved by their families, just as Agnieszka (and I’m sure many other young girls) are jealous of Kasia’s perceived perfections. Despite their dueling resentments, Kasia and Agnieszka never let them get in the way of their abiding love for each other.

 

It is also a great relief to find that, despite being set up initially as the "clumsy heroine"-type, Agnieszka rises to every occasion and is the hero of her own story, not the damsel to be rescued. The Dragon as Byronic hero was a little overdone and their antipathy drawn out a little excessively, but it is a minor issue.

 

The foundation of Uprooted’s mythology is Eastern European, more specifically Czech and Polish folklore centered around Baba Jaga and her earthy kind of magic. I keep trying to avoid the words “root” and “rooted,” since it seems like lame punning on the title, but there is so much earth magic it is increasingly difficult. The story IS rooted in folklore as well as more modern fantasy tropes, and for the most part it combines them successfully. I only wish Novik had avoided that most dreaded and prevalent of clichés, the over-the-top-epic battle as the climax (though even that is a little misleading, as the real struggle happens directly after the battle). I’m just not interested in descriptions of combat, particularly in a novel that didn’t especially need it. It fits plot-wise in most respects, but it stands out as the rare unoriginal portion of an otherwise surprising story.

(show spoiler)

 

 

I recently read that Uprooted is the first in a series. I find this exciting, but also very unexpected; the story is entirely self-contained and has a clear, mostly satisfying resolution- and even very definitive foreshadowing of the future. I’m hoping that “series” means that she is going to give us more from the world of Uprooted, rather than forcing the story into a serialized form that takes away from the very powerful drama and pathos of this particular tale.