REVIEW: Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Dear Ms. Novik,
Back in the day, I was a devoted reader of your Temeraire series, an alternate history fantasy series set in early 19th century England, about Captain William Laurence and his “brave but impulsive dragon,” Temeraire. I read the first…four? five? books in the series and then just sort of fell behind and fell out of them. I know there are readers who were disappointed with some of the middle books; I can’t say whether that influenced my decision not to continue with the series. Actually, I don’t think I’ve really *made* that decision, since in my mind I’ll get back to them one day. Especially now, checking on your website and seeing that the series has a planned finale, the tenth book to be published at some point in the nearish future.
But meanwhile, I came across Uprooted available for review, and was instantly intrigued. Fantasy-fairy tale isn’t necessarily my wheelhouse, but I like your writing well enough to be interested in a stand-alone book (somehow it seems easier to read that than to get back into the Temeraire books after all these years). Plus, the blurb intrigued me mightily:
Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.
Right away I was like: again with dragons? Okay. But as the blurb states, the male protagonist of Uprooted is not a dragon at all, though he’s referred to by that moniker throughout the book (we don’t find out his given name until almost halfway through). Rather, he’s a wizard, a powerful wizard who looms over the valley in his imposing castle, protecting the inhabitants of the surrounding villages from the evil that is the Wood – a corrupted and evil forest that lies along their border, attempting to encroach on the people and land and sending out terrible creatures to snatch anyone who wanders too close to it.
Our narrator in this medieval-ish fantasy world is Agnieszka, seventeen and devoted daughter and sister as well as loving friend to Kasia, her best friend since childhood. Both Agnieszka and Kasia are part of the group of seventeen-year-olds who are eligible to be chosen by the Dragon to be taken to his castle and kept there for 10 years. The girls who return to the valley after their decade of service always claim that the Dragon doesn’t touch them, but are otherwise closed-mouth about happenings in the castle. They also don’t stay home afterwards; some try for a few weeks or months but inevitably they are so changed that they end up leaving for the city.
It has long been assumed in Agnieszka’s village that Kasia is the obvious choice to be the Dragon’s companion; she’s bright, beautiful and kind. Agnieszka herself is seen as rather clumsy and slatternly; she can rarely keep her hair tidy and her clothing free of smudges or tears for an hour at a time.
But when the ceremony day comes, it’s Agnieszka the Dragon chooses. She is spirited away with barely a chance to say goodbye to her family. Alone in the cold and imposing castle, Agnieszka is both terrified of the Dragon (whose social skills could use some work) and desperately homesick. She’s unclear on what he wants from her; he’s gruff and rude and seems to have little use for her presence, so what is she there for? It takes a while to dawn on Agnieszka (as it did on me as a reader): she is a witch, and the Dragon is trying to teach her magic (I’m not sure why he didn’t just spell it out for her – no pun intended – but whatever).
It doesn’t go well at first. Again, the Dragon has a terrible bedside manner; he treats Agnieszka with contempt and loses his temper all too easily. She, however, manages to grow into her role at the castle. She’s still homesick, but once she realizes that the Dragon isn’t going to hurt her, she regains her spine and a healthy streak of defiance. Slowly (and with the help of a spell-book she finds that belonged to an ancient, legendary witch) she realizes that her way of magic is different from the wizard’s. He’s more of a step-by-step precision spell-caster (late in the book she refers to the “brilliant crisp bite of his magic”), whereas she only flourishes when she can do so by feel, like a cook who doesn’t follow a recipe but chooses her ingredients and amounts by experience, intuition and experimentation. This realization allows Agnieszka’s skills to grow rapidly, and she and the Dragon even come to the realization that working together, they can cast more powerful spells than either could alone.
The Wood remains a powerful threat, though, and eventually it strikes; while the Dragon is away dealing with chimaera in a distant mountain pass (he’s called on when magical beasts attack anywhere in the surrounding valley), a signal fire is lit from Agnieszka’s home village; she can see it from the castle and knows that it means some disaster has befallen the village. The villagers have no idea that the Dragon is not there to respond to their cry for help, so Agnieszka does the only thing she can do: she sets off to help them herself (she first has to escape the castle itself, as she is locked in). She’s able to limit the damage in the village until the Dragon can come and vanquish the attackers, white wolves that have come out of the Wood and attacked livestock and a farmer.
But the incident is proof that the Wood is growing stronger, and appears to have a sentience that was perhaps not perceived before. It seems that the Dragon was deliberately drawn away in order to leave Agnieszka’s village vulnerable to attack. Meanwhile, this is not the only problem our protagonists face. An earlier visit to the castle from Prince Marek, the arrogant second son of the King of Polnya (Agnieszka’s homeland) had ended disastrously, and after further aggression by the Wood ends up endangering someone near and dear to Agnieszka, the Prince returns and essentially strong-arms Agnieszka and the Dragon into attempting to rescue his mother, the Queen of Polnya, from the Wood.
People who go into the Wood or are “taken” by the Wood are often never seen again. Queen Hanna supposedly ran away with the Crown Prince of Polnya’s enemy country Rosya 20 years before and has not been seen since. But sometimes people *do* venture out of the Wood. They may seem normal, but they are invariably “corrupted”, and eventually will attack their families or friends or even more sinisterly, exhibit the ability to control the minds of those around them and compel them to harm themselves. For this reason the sentence for corruption is death, under all circumstances.
In any case, venturing into the Wood to try to rescue someone who has been trapped in it for 20 years seems like a suicide mission. But Marek, who is hard-headed in the extreme, and overly confident in his martial abilities, insists. So they set off: the Prince, Agnieszka, the Dragon, another wizard called the Falcon (his real name is Solya, and he’s a rival of sorts of the Dragon), along with 20 highly trained and brave soldiers. What happens during the rescue mission, a bit before the halfway point in Uprooted, sets the table for the rest of the book and the ultimate battle between the Wood and the forces that seek to contain it.
I probably liked the first half of the book a bit better. The set-up and the slow realization by Agnieszka of just what she was made for compelling reading. Her adversarial relationship with the Dragon was entertaining and made the slow build-up of deeper feelings between the two satisfying (and I’m not usually a fan of bickering lovers). The second half of the book features a separation between Agnieszka and the Dragon, and eventually, a lot of action. I didn’t dislike it, but I found it slightly less engaging.
The fantastical descriptions of the horror that is the Wood were vivid and well-drawn:
The banks became thicker and wilder, brambles full of red berries and thorns like dragon’s teeth, pale white and deadly sharp. The trees grew thick and misshapen and enormous. They leaned over the river; they threw thin whips of branches into the air, clawing for more of the sky. They looked the way a snarl sounds.
One of the strengths of Uprooted is the characterization. I was a little wary of Agnieszka at first; her own descriptions of herself made her seem bumbling and a little weak, and I feared a clichéd “ugly duckling turns out to be beautiful swan all along” transformation. Agnieszka does transform, but it’s much more natural than that; her realization that she’s a witch allows her to come into her own and claim her power. She’s pretty wise for her age (and grows wiser fighting the Wood) but she’s still a 17-year-old girl from a small village and at times feels out of her depth.
The Dragon is a prickly hero at best; Darcy to Agnieszka’s Lizzie Bennet or Beast to her Beauty. He never makes any big declarations or changes into a gooey Byronic hero. He’s at least 150 years old; change is harder for him than for Agnieszka. But she comes to know him and understand what’s behind the scowls and the sharp words, and accepts him for who he is, and there’s something romantic about that.
The secondary characters are well-drawn too; I kept going back and forth on Marek, who seemed at times like a monster but at other times just like a little boy who never got over the loss of his mother. Kasia was a strong and supportive friend and the depiction of female friendship in the book was nice to see.
The book picked up in the last quarter and the explanation of how the Wood came to be was satisfying, without being too byzantine. All in all, Uprooted was well worth reading and even has convinced me that I should be more open to other books in the genre. For that, I’m giving it an A-.