Book Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Uprooted by Naomi Novik- cover

Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.

Reading this book felt, to me, like going home. I suppose I have spent most of my life reading fairytales and fantasy, and it’s only in the last few years that I’ve branched out into sci-fi and even *gasp* fiction. Reading fantasy again, especially a fantasy so strongly rooted in folklore and fairytale, felt like settling into a well-loved armchair after a long day. It was wonderful.

That’s not to say that it wasn’t scary; Uprooted has that particular fairytale skill of snagging the edges of the unconscious and holding them ransom, so that I would not realise I was scared until I turned out the light and tried to sleep. It was also bloody and terrible in a way that only fairytales manage. Something about it put me in mind of Beauty and the Beast: there is a lot of rich imagery involving roses and towers, and a terrible beast/man who can, perhaps, be transformed. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Agnieszka (pronounced ag-NYESH-ka) lives in a village near the Wood, and has done her whole life. Their Dragon is in fact a man; the local lord, an immortal wizard who demands a girl every ten years to be his servant. And when the ten years are up, the girl is released and will, inevitably, leave the valley never to return. In this way, she is lost. Agnieszka does not expect to be chosen – her best friend Kasia is the obvious choice and everyone agrees. However, she is chosen, and everything changes.

Agnieszka is an enjoyable protagonist, stubborn and determined even when she is scared and barely knows what she is doing. She fights and fights and fights, in all sorts of ways, and sometimes she makes mistakes and sometimes her lack of forethought is infuriating, but I was always rooting for her. The heart of the story is Agnieszka, the Dragon and the Wood, and it takes us to all sorts of unexpected places. The Dragon is at war with the Wood, which is a terrible, semi-sentient place full of lurking life and malice. The Wood can, if you are not careful, get inside your head and change you forever. It might eat you. It might lock you in a tree. It might take you away and return your body to your village and let you loose on your loved ones. And it is always, always there. The villagers all know this, but without the Dragon they could not fight it.

One of the things that I really loved about this story was that Kasia does not fade into obscurity, in the way that so many best friends do in similar narratives. She remains important all the way through. The fairy/folktale influences are obvious, in the imagery, in the shape of the story and in its particular brand of magic. Baba Yaga even made an appearance, ribboning through the pages with a slightly altered name [Edit, 04/01/2017: I have been informed that it is not an altered name, it is the Polish spelling. Thank you awesome commenter!]. I loved the spells, which had to be spoken aloud in a particular language and which could be altered by playing with the words. I loved the warring kingdoms and the hints of stories within the story, and the way that it could trip me up just when I thought I knew where it was going.

In fact, the only down point that I can think of is [SPOILER ALERT]that I was a bit bored by the inevitable romance between Agnieszka and the Dragon. It felt superfluous, although actually as the story continued their relationship became more interesting, and by the end I was quite enjoying it. I think my dislike is likely because a) I get very bored of heterosexual romances, simply because they are everywhere and b) I have very little patience for the “terrible/difficult/evil man only needs the love of a good woman to change” cliché, and at the beginning their relationship fell into that category. However, it does dig itself out of there, so hooray!

Overall, I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys fairytales; Uprooted reads like one, and has a quiet and enduring magic. Naomi Novik is extremely skilled with her imagery, and there are pictures that I still have floating about in my mind like persistent driftwood.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. maybe_slytherin
    Jan 04, 2017 @ 01:38:39

    Yay, reviews!

    I’m definitely with you on being bored of heterosexual romances, and I’m not sure this one did dig itself out of there. On top of the cliché you mention, it also had the “brilliant young student falls in love with wise old tutor” one. This isn’t a terrible thing in itself — clichés are the building blocks of fantasy, after all — but for me, the real issue was that their relationship didn’t develop that much beyond a few scenes of desire.

    By contrast, she loved (or could well have loved) Kasia from the beginning, and they grew together as they were transformed by magic and their abruptly rising station in the world. A & K all the way.

    (Also, unlike may readers, I found the magic system interesting but not especially convincing. And “Jaga” is just the Polish spelling.)

    Reply

    • Meredith
      Jan 04, 2017 @ 13:57:06

      yay comments! Thank you for commenting 😀

      Yeah, the het romance thing is… Well, I’m not against het romance; it’s just that it’s everywhere and a lot of the time it’s so lazily done that I do not care. And often there’s another character around who has waaaaay better chemistry with the main character but they cannot possibly be a romantic interest because then it would be gay *growls in frustration* Personally, I enjoyed how their relationship was portrayed at the end when Agnieszka was being an independent forest witch (and I’d really love stories about her just being an epic, chilled out forest-witch who defies everyone’s ideas about magic), but not how they got there. And I can’t believe I missed the “brilliant student falls in love with teacher” cliche when it was staring me in the face so obviously!
      Now that you’ve mentioned A and K, I’m going to have to re-read the book with that in mind 🙂 Because epic independent forest witch Agnieszka and slightly bemused and hardcore tree warrior Kasia sounds amazing….

      I really liked the magic system, but I’m a total sucker for combinations of magic and words and language 🙂 And thanks for letting me know about Jaga, I’m going to put an edit in the review.
      Again, thanks for commenting.

      Reply

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