First published on Fantasy Faction
A word of warning before we begin: As soon as I finished this book, it went straight into my top five all-time favourites, so be prepared for raving. I’ve reviewed several books this year and given them ten stars, but I’d give Uprooted eleven if it were possible. Because occasionally you find a book that calls to something in you – it goes beyond loving into the realms of mild obsession. When I saw the blurb for Uprooted, I knew it would be right up my street. It’s the epitome of everything I love about fantasy: wild magic, fairy tale, mysterious woodland, an enigmatic sorcerer, a feisty, likable protagonist, poetic language, and it made me feel like a teenager, discovering this wonderful genre all over again. Perhaps it’s these elements, or something more indefinable that ensnared me so completely I felt I too was a victim of the Wood. Whatever it is, there can be no doubt that Novik is a master of her craft.
Uprooted has a simple yet great premise: In return for protecting the people of the valley from the terrors of the Wood, the mysterious wizard called the Dragon comes every ten years and chooses a girl of seventeen to live with him in his tower. Once their time of service is done, each of those girls is free to go but emerges changed and inevitably ends up leaving her homeland and going to the cities. It’s well known that the Dragon always chooses the most beautiful or talented girls and so Agnieszka is as deeply shocked as everyone else when he chooses her over her best (and more beautiful) friend Kasia.
But in such circumstances are stories born and what a story awaits Agnieszka. She’s swept away to the Dragon’s tower, whose deepest foundations remember a terrible history. She comes to know the man behind the wizard and in the process discovers some essential truths about herself and her ties to both the Wood and her valley home. Uprooted is a magnificent combination of folk and fairy tale and the action carries us from the idyllic to the monstrous, from battles fought beneath the corrupted trees of the Wood, to a great siege and a titanic struggle between armies.
And all this reaches us through beautifully-crafted prose. Novik’s writing manages to be simultaneously simple and subtle and poetic. The influence of folk tales is readily apparent (I loved the nod to Baba Yaga) in both the magic and the general ethereal air of the novel. ‘So vividly believable that it almost seems you could work the spells’, Ursula Le Guin says and I agree – there’s something compelling in the way Novik binds the exercise of magic into an individual’s character, so that it doesn’t work the same way for everyone. Magic is humanised, personalised, which is perhaps why it feels so plausible. The working of the Summoning – a spell that reveals Truth and is integral to the storyline – is described beautifully as ‘living in that golden place of vague and loving memory’. I love this integration of magic with human experience, as if magic originated from such experience.
My favourite character has to be Sarkan, the Dragon, charmingly fastidious, terse, sarcastic and still lovable for all the times he calls Agnieszka an ‘intolerable lunatic’. Their relationship is built as carefully as a house of cards; it’s fascinating how each is so different and yet, like their magic, they complement one another. Agnieszka’s a great heroine – brave, foolhardy and utterly likable and easy to empathise with. Her relationship with her friend, Kasia, is just as carefully constructed; Novik takes no shortcuts with character and it’s refreshing to read about a complex relationship between two women, something that’s often missing from fantasy. Kasia herself undergoes a harrowing experience early in the novel, which shapes the rest of her storyline and she, along with a surprisingly large cast of supporting characters, helps to flesh out and give context to the central conflict of the novel – the encroachment of the Wood.
Although Uprooted is a standalone, it seems as if it’s part of a series in the sheer amount of detail Novik supplies without once overwhelming the reader. The worldbuilding is woven into dialogue and characterisation until you gradually become aware of a whole landscape and its history spread out before you. It’s a real gift to be able to feed in this information subtly and, when done right, it’s absolutely engrossing. This is one of those books you don’t want to finish, but can’t help tearing through. I don’t know what else to say to convince you to give Uprooted a try. If you like folk and fairy tales, magic, poetry, complex human interaction and a story that unfolds at an impressive pace, you’ll love this book. It’s destined to become a classic of the genre and there’s no higher praise I can give.