“There was a song in the forest, but it was a savage song, whispering of madness and tearing and rage.” – Agnieszka (Uprooted by Naomi Novik)
Uprooted was one of those new release, but bargain book table finds- I had wandered into the book store (as I often do), without any real purpose, other than to peruse the books in hopes that some new book would jump out with me. The old lady at this little bookstore near my university recognized me by this point (of course), and directed me to this book, happily discussing how much she had enjoyed it. Now, her advice had never been wrong in the past (it was her who recommended Queen of the Tearling, among other, to me), so I bought Uprooted on a whim. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I thoroughly enjoyed this little fairy tale of a novel, from start to finish.
The story follows the tale of Agnieszka, a “dragon-born” girl. As one of the dragon-born, she risks being chosen by the Dragon, the cold, driven wizard who is Lord of her valley home. One might think that the people of the valley would eventually refuse him, but the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life. Her people rely on the Dragon to keep its powers at bay, despite the price they must pay; one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years. The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka knows that the Dragon will take Kasia; her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her. But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose, but Agnieszka herself. What the Dragon sees in her, prompting her selection, launches Agnieszka into an entirely different world of magic, politics and danger, pushing her closer, not further, from the danger of the Wood. For it may be that only she can stop the advance of the malevolent powers of the Wood for good.
This book had all the promise of being a good book, and through masterful writing and an intricate, original plot, it certainly followed through on said promise. Novik created a fairy tale as rich and dangerous as those written long before her, while maintaining a sense of novelty. The concept of the woods, the magic system Novik created, all felt refreshingly new and original, despite the classic feel of this novel.
The story was woven quite intricately, right from the beginning. Mundane, passing comments later revealed to be integral to understanding the story, or to understanding a character (Agnieszka’s constantly messy clothes, for example, or the story of the lost queen). The further you get into the story, the more glaringly obvious it becomes that no piece of the story is insignificant; all of the pieces fit together perfectly, crafting a rich story from start to finish. Just as the reader begins to wonder where the story will go next, Novik reveals the path through the forest, drawing you into the clutches of the book further and further, until it’s impossible to stop reading.
Another thing I absolutely loves about this book was the characters. Right from the get-go, they were richly drawn, albeit in broad strokes. The details were added in later, carefully and intricately, as Novik developed the characters and their stories piece by piece. For such a short book (which could arguably have been much longer), Novik did a masterful job in regards the character development.
- Marek’s character development, from perceived hero to assailant to madman, is also quite fascinating, highlighting that stories do not always portray the truth. In fact, I have rather found it to be quite the opposite in many cases. Novik did a wonderful job making the reader both hate and pity Marek, for his plight, while honorable, was clearly tainted by his own ill-conceived ploy for power, and the Wood itself.
- One character I did not really enjoy was Kasia. From the get-go, she is simply too perfect. Beautiful, talented, honest and strong, Kasia never fails to be the image of perfection, even after her ill-fated journey to the Wood. Where Agnieszka lacks, Kasia flourishes. I suppose I may just despise “perfect” characters on principle, but within the story of Uprooted, Kasia simply felt out of place in a world which was otherwise falling apart.
Moving on to the two main protagonist (so to speak), there is a lot to be said for their character development. One thing I loved about both Agnieszka and the Dragon was that Novik created characters with flaws. They struggle, and they make mistakes, and they feel things they don’t want, or expect, to feel (which I’ll get to in a moment).
- Agnieszka begins a quiet, mousy kind of girl, timid and rightfully terrified of the Dragon, yet through her relationship with him, and through her personal discoveries of her own power, she grows to be something more. Despite this, Novik allowed Agnieszka to keep her original personality, merely building confidence and motivation upon it to help her grow into her role. Those attributes, mixed with her typically quiet demeanor, make for an interesting character, who is not only at odds with herself, but at odds with her own decisions, constantly questioning what is wrong and what is right.
- Equally interesting was the development of the Dragon, from the revelation of his true name (Sarkan) to his true nature (brooding, but most certainly not cruel). He’s clearly been allowed to brood in his tower for far too long, yet despite his original, villainous role, he is slowly revealed to be (perhaps) among the greatest heroes in the fight against the Wood. Through his relationship with Agnieszka, the Dragon begins to reveal his story, opening up to her as the romance between them grows.
Another thing- Novik wrote a great romance here, albeit it wasn’t the focus of the story. Which I loved. Neither the Dragon, nor Agnieszka, had any intention of falling in love with the other, nor did they appear to want to. Yet, inevitably, they did. It began through a mutual need for support, however it didn’t end that way. Upon Sarkan’s return, it felt like something more, and it was certainly equal in its need, which I enjoyed. Neither party needed the other, yet they were arguably better together than they were apart.
Overall, I found this book to be thoroughly enjoyable, well written and altogether entrancing. Uprooted would surely be right at home among classic fairy tales, and yet at the same time, it fits in with modern fantasy novel as well. Truly, Novik has crafted a beautiful piece here.