Uprooted by Naomi Novik

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I hadn’t intended to read Uprooted—I’d read His Majesty’s Dragon, Naomi Novik’s first book in her fantasy/alt-history series a couple years ago, and while I liked her writing just fine, my reaction to the book itself was lukewarm. (I love dragons. LOVE them. Napoleonic battles? Not so much.) But Uprooted has been this year’s standalone fantasy novel that seemingly everyone on the Internet was raving about, and then I saw several of my favorite authors had provided blurbs. So I went and put a hold on it at the library. My thoughts? Are mixed.

Every ten years, the Dragon chooses a girl from one of the villages on the outskirts of the Wood, and for a decade she lives with him in his tower. When her time’s up, she never comes back home, instead heading off to the cities. The Dragon is a powerful wizard, the only defense the villagers have against the monsters and plagues that emerge from the Wood to corrupt and claim the land as its own. All the villagers are grateful for the Dragon’s presence, but no one knows what he wants with these girls, what does with them, or why they never come home.

Seventeen-year-old Agnieszka is one of the potential girls the Dragon might pick this year. However she and everyone in her village knows he’s going to choose her best friend Kasia, including Kasia herself, the smartest, prettiest, and bravest girl of them all. On the day of choosing, no one is more stunned than Agnieszka when the Dragon, defying all expectations, picks her instead, the girl who loves roaming in the outdoors and can’t go five minutes without making a mess of her clothes. The Dragon, a cantankerous, acerbic, and fussy academic, makes for a difficult housemate, yet he continues to defy Agnieszka’s expectations when he insists on teaching her magic. As Agnieszka’s strength and power grow, the Wood too grows ever more daring and bold, seeking to expand beyond its borders, swallow the villages, and expand beyond the mountain range. As Agnieszka becomes entangled in a life-or-death game of political intrigue, she and the Dragon have to contend with the power of the Wood, capable of reaching into faraway capital and the palace itself.

The Grimm fairytale-ness of Uprooted is fantastic. I loved the Wood—it is a dark, creepy, terrifying, horrific entity whose ever-encroaching presence neither the villagers or we the readers are ever allowed to forget. Eat the wrong berries, come into contact with the wrong tree, bush, or creature, and you either become a rabid monster or fodder for the grossly distorted and foul heart trees that serve as the Wood’s anchor points. The Wood is an aware, thinking entity, and nowhere and no one is safe from its reach, not even the royal family living in the faraway capital. The immediate and visceral danger the Wood presents throughout the book makes this book an especially intense, seat-of-your-pants read.

I also loved the contrast between Agnieszka and the Dragon’s respective personalities and backgrounds. Agnieszka, whose heart and soul rooted in the very land she came from, is a stubborn, clumsy, and impulsive girl who literally cannot keep her clothes free from messes, stains and snags, irritating the Dragon’s neat and fastidious sensibilities to no end. While Agnieszka is exasperated at the Dragon’s complete lack of ability at interpersonal skills, the Dragon is infuriated at Agnieszka’s utter ineptitude at the traditional, by-the-book spells he attempts to teach her. Yet she possesses an innate adeptness at the more natural, intuitive forms of magic jotted down by village witches, which the Dragon can’t even get close to replicating. As the two of them mutter, gripe, and snarl their way into a working relationship, Agnieszka and the Dragon learn to mesh their two ways of magic-casting and become a powerful team.

Of the two protagonists, the Dragon ended up being my favorite. I have a soft spot (to put it mildly) for grumpy characters who grow increasingly grumpier when they realize they’re actually having feelings for people and then attempt to demonstrate affection in awkward, sometimes disastrous ways. Which isn’t to say I didn’t develop feelings for Agnieszka—I loved how straightforward and honest she was, and plain-old goodhearted. She’s the kind of person who, upon hearing her village is in trouble, will blunder head-first into danger armed with nothing more than a couple potion bottles whose contents are worth more than her life. And that’s the only the first of the dangerous situations she catapults herself into. Armed with only her will and her magic, she’s able to make miracles out of the impossible, again and again.

Amidst all the good stuff, there were some major problems I had with Uprooted. My main issue is that the book felt like two stories jammed together into one. The first half of the story is based locally in and around the Wood, the surrounding villages, and the Dragon’s tower. Later on, with the arrival of one of the princes of the Kingdom and his accompanying wizard, the story leaps back to the capital where it becomes a tale of political shenanigans, after which it vaults back to the Wood where the intrigue is once again abandoned for magical folklore rooted in a very specific geographic space. While the book’s resolution did fit with the story that ended up being told, it felt like the book took a very circuitous route in getting there.

The circuitous nature is also led to a lack of development with certain story elements and characters. For instance, Agnieszka’s friend Kasia shows up in the middle of the book, and her plight becomes an integral part of the main conflict. However, she barely takes any action or speaks any dialogue to the point that I wondered what purpose she served in the narrative beyond providing plot tension.

Agnieszka and the Dragon’s relationship similarly suffered. A romance develops between the two of them, a development that inherently did not thrill me because it seemed so unnecessary—their student-teacher relationship had more than enough trials and awkward patches to work through without the addition of a romance. And then, because Agnieszka and the Dragon spend a good chunk of the book separated due to the aforementioned leap from the Wood to the capital city, their budding attraction for each other felt rushed and unsatisfactory.

Finally, I would have loved if the narrative had gone further with the differences in magic casting representing different schools of thought. The Dragon’s formalized academic magic and Agnieszka’s informal, hedgewitch magic are both powerful in their own ways, and are reflection of their respective differences regarding how each of them perceive the world around them. Agnieszka’s magic gives her a notable advantage not just in combating the wood, but also understanding its logic and how and why it operates in the manner it does. I wanted more exploration of the Dragon’s brand of magic and how and why magic had become institutionalized while Agnieszka’s brand of magic was disregarded as impotent nonsense, a difference that ultimately puts the former kind of magician at a disadvantage when it comes to fully understanding the Wood.

There’s a lot to love about Uprooted, namely Agnieszka’s headstrong, sincere nature, the Dragon’s endearing sardonic attitude, and a truly forbidding and powerful magical antagonist. Structural issues and narrative choices prevented me from fully falling in love with this book as many others have done. That being said, I still recommend it to anyone who’s looking for a Grimm’s Fairytales-inspired story or an especially character-centric read.

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