When Naomi Novik’s Uprooted first came to my attention, it was on many recommended fantasy lists. Upon seeing the cover and reading summaries, it came off as YA, but I did some more research and saw the number of awards the book had won, including the 2016 Nebula Award for Best Novel and the 2016 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel. Seeing the positive reception, I decided to give it a read.
The book is charming and entertaining. The protagonist, Agnieszka, is a fun, spunky, earthy character with no frills or refinement, but a lot of passion. She is chosen by the Dragon, a wizard who lives in a tower to protect the area from the evil wood. The Dragon selects a teenage girl from the village of Dvernik every ten years. No one knows why, just that the girls always come back changed. Agneiszka did not expect to be chosen, her best friend Kasia is prettier, smarter and more daring, and it was expected that Kasia would be the one.
The characters develop organically and in a way that stays true to who they are fundamentally. The relationship between Agnieszka and the Dragon unfolds at a steady pace, never forced and full of humor. Where Agnieszka loves the outdoors, without a care for dirt and disorder, the Dragon admires beauty, order, cleanliness. The two characters fight each other for a good portion of the book as the Dragon tries to mold her to his look and personality. Much to his irritation, she refuses, following her own way.
Novik carefully dances around the issue of a young women being taken to live with an older man alone, she embraces it in a way. Moving in with the wizard, Agnieszka wonders what his plans are for her, possibly he uses his girls for sex or eats them, but that idea is quickly dispelled. She makes him meals and, disgusted by her attire, he teaches her a spell to turn her ragged dresses into elegant gowns. In doing this, Agnieszka learns that the Dragon took her because she has magical abilities. Sensing the magic in her, he felt it was his duty to become her teacher. Little by little she is taught magic, but finds that her way of doing magic is different from his.
Magic is beautifully explained in the book through imagery. Agnieszka uses and senses magic in an organic way. She feels it through song and nature and over time, she adapts the spells taught to her by the Dragon in ways that feel more natural. The Dragon keeps order in his spells, wanting them to be precise and linear, while she lets them flow as they come. Their individual magic philosophies eventually combine to form something stronger, that will impact the kingdom.
One thing missing from the book was a map. Novik planned the world out very specifically, with the wood in the center of multiple villages that make up the kingdom of Polnya, a northern sea town and the castle. Having a map at the front of the book would have helped the reader see this great world-building a little better, but that’s a minor issue.
Love is a big theme in this book, but Novik explores it in unexpected and subtle ways. There’s a lot of romantic tension between Agnieszka and the Dragon, but it is not heavily explored and there’s only a suggestion at the end that the two will end up together. Honestly, that is the extent of romance in the novel- no complaints here.
Love in the form of friendship takes up more of the spotlight. Agnieszka and her best friend Kasia have a strong bond. When Kasia gets captured by the Wood, Agnieszka must realize her potential as a witch. Venturing into the Wood, she saves Kasia, pulling her body from a tree. The Dragon tells Agnieszka that her friend is not who she used to be, but a vessel for the Wood’s corruption.
Refusing to let her friend die, Agnieszka convinces the Dragon to perform a summoning spell with her and together they are able to draw the old Kasia out from the corruption. News of their achievement reaches Prince Marek and he rides to the Dragon’s tower to find out if it is true, bringing his own wizard, the Falcon, along to test whether Kasia is still corrupted.
When Marek and the Falcon are convinced that Kasia is cured, Marek’s personal motives for visiting them come to light. He wants to rescue his mother, the Queen, who ran away into the Wood many years ago. Marek’s love for his mother and obsession with rescuing her, really sets the plot of the novel on its course.
I would recommend Uprooted to readers who love fantasy, especially of the fairy tale variety. There’s humor, but also substance, and the book takes you along with Agnieszka as she figures out who she is and what she cares about. In the end she finds her own life and makes peace with her unruly, earthy self.
There are only a couple issues I have with the book. One is that there is never a satisfying reason for why the Dragon takes a village girl to his tower every ten years, the explanation is brief and it felt that Novik could not come to a good conclusion for this either. The other, is that the explanation for why the Wood exists and how it became corrupt is not fully realized. Novik explains it through, what is essentially, a flashback and to me it was a lazy way to go about it. It just seemed that there could have been more depth to the history of the Wood. These issues did not really slow the book down for me or take me out of the story, but perhaps it would have been a stronger story if they had been further explored by the author.