A few weeks ago, I was jotting down a reading list for a friend who needed something new and Uprooted by Naomi Novik was first on the list. I had been raving to my friend about the book, and she asked, “So is this one I can just go buy?” That’s about the highest recommendation* I can give. Don’t borrow it from a friend or the library or wait to search it out secondhand – just get to the nearest store and purchase it. I might even forgive you if you use Amazon. (I’m a huge proponent of independent bookstores. You can shop my favorite here.) Uprooted has all of the ingredients I would expect for a fairy tale – the scary, evil woods, the powerful mentor of a wizard, and the unassuming young protagonist – yet the outcome left me with a delicious new tang in the flavor of this familiar recipe. Maybe it was the characters because if I was only able to give you one reason to buy this book, it would be the characters. I love them because they are unconventional without being self-conscious about it. The Dragon’s age is measured in centuries, and he’s bald, fastidious, stubborn, and sarcastic. Agnieszka is a coltish seventeen, clumsy, awkward, unskilled, and just generally a mess all of the time. While the Dragon operates by scientific calculation, Agnieszka is intuitive and earthy. They make a terrible pair that you can’t tear yourself away from watching.
Agnieszka lives in her quiet valley village that is overshadowed by the corrupted Wood. Nightmares seem tame in comparison to what the Wood can produce, and even living close to its borders poses a huge risk. Their powerful wizard known as the Dragon lives an isolated life in his tower and keeps the Wood’s forces at bay. It’s not a free service, however. Every ten years the Dragon takes a 17-year-old girl from one of the villages to live in the tower with him. At the end, he releases her with a purse full of silver and a persona that no longer fits into the quiet village ways. He prefers beautiful, witty, and talented girls which has kept Agnieszka safe from being chosen. Everyone knows that it will be her lovely best friend Kasia, who is everything the Dragon could want and more. Except when the day comes, he doesn’t choose Kasia. Agnieszka embarks on an unexpected adventure and discovers that while no one has ever asked anything of her before, to save the people and the land that she loves, everything will be required of her.
The pet peeve of several of my last few fantasy reads has been the liberal use of Deus Ex Machina to tidy everything up. Some were subtle and some were painfully obvious, but either way I felt cheated. I mean, if the great white wizards were this horribly kept secret and with a mere shake of the wrist they can rid the land of evil without harming a single innocent, why the heck has no one talked to them before now?! Ahem. In contrast to this, Novik has endings down masterfully. There was the sense of a hard-won peace after the battle and a revelation of secrets that fit all of the pieces together. Nothing is exactly as you wanted it or as you’d hoped, and there’s plenty of healing needing to be done, but that is a more real ending. The lovely part was that she showed Agnieszka doing the healing, remaking her corner of the world in ways you hadn’t known were possible in the beginning but which flowed naturally from the story. Even though she had only just begun, you knew how it would go on in the days and years to follow. There was no happily ever after, because how can there be when so many have died in senseless ways? But there was hope for the future, a tremulous peace, and, unexpectedly, joy. Every bit of it was enormously satisfying.
Few authors that I have read have truly mastered the use of first person. Just as I tend to do in these blog posts, the narrator gets too caught up in how they felt in the moment or what they thought about everything to actually tell the story. Also, they are often not an observant narrator and much of the world goes missing. Agnieszka rarely dwells on what she thinks or feels; she simply gets on with telling what we are all dying to know – what happens next. And yet, I felt that I did know most of the time what she was feeling anyway. It was subtly done. In fact, throughout the story I frequently forgot that it was in first person because she simply told the story much more like third person does. Which can make you wonder what the benefit of first person really is, but I think Agnieszka needed to tell this story because it was her story. Only she could have lived it and survived it and saved the day. There were a few places that introspection wouldn’t have hurt to slow the pace a bit; however, I am slightly biased in that I love introspection in stories and would tend to go overboard. So, take that recommendation with a grain of salt and be assured that her first person narrative is one I would hold up as a model.
My only real complaint was Kasia – the beautiful, brave, and clever best friend. She felt blank to me. The sense of her woodenness and quiet strength came through, but I had to continually remind myself that she was beautiful and that she had thoughts of her own. It says that Kasia and Agnieska are best friends, and they did brave things for each other; however, they never really talked. Their relationship in the book consisted of many escapes, lots of hugs, and sacrifices, but I felt slightly…unconvinced. What made her and Angieska friends from the beginning? Who were they together before everything? The scene where they felt most real to me was during the first Summoning. Kasia was a real person with thoughts, desires, emotions, mistakes, resentments. Once she came through though, it was as if her personality became wooden as well. You never learned by any hint what she felt or thought of any of it from that point on. What did she want in all this? I wanted to love her character as well, but it felt like trying to love something wooden instead of warm and alive. Perhaps that was Novik’s intention, but I wanted just a glimpse of what made Kasia and Agnieska friends.
To recap: if fantasy or fairy tales are your thing, go buy this book now. Even if they aren’t, consider buying it anyway. Then let me know what you think.
*I know many don’t care and find this silly at best or censoring at worst, but since I prefer to have these things laid out for me when I receive a recommendation, I’m going to issue a content warning for those who are mindful of such things – there are two brief but explicit sexual scenes in the book. As a note for the future, I may also put a warning out there if I find the level of darkness or violence to be such that I would not recommend the book to everyone. Of course, this is all subject to my own perspective and worldview, so please keep that in mind.