Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.
Her people rely on the cold, ambitious wizard, known only as the Dragon, to keep the wood’s powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman must be handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as being lost to the wood.
The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows – everyone knows – that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia – all the things Agnieszka isn’t – and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.
But no one can predict how or why the Dragon chooses a girl. And when he comes, it is not Kasia he will take with him.
Naomi Novik is most famous for her place in the fanfic community, as a cofounder of Archive Of Our Own, and for her Temeraire series of books, best described as Sharpe-with-dragons. Uprooted, at first glance, looks like a continuation of both traditions; a kind of fanfic of Polish fairy and folk tales, with added dragons. But that’s a very misleading glance; Uprooted is something very different, standing rather alone in its field like the tower that forms a key location in the narrative…
In many ways, Uprooted is exactly the kind of book fantasy readers are expected to look down on; a magic system that isn’t really explained, a strange evil force encroaching on the land, a Ruritanian social and political model, and a (late) teenage protagonist who it turns out is more than they seem. On the other hand, that’s also the recipe of an awful lot of successful fantasy novels, so perhaps it’s no surprise there’s so many entries in that tradition. Uprooted isn’t one of them, however; while at first blush using all those aspects, Novik averts, subverts, complicates or simply elevates them in her novel, as well as having a sense of joyousness, of humanity, of humaneness that was last seen in Goblin Emperor and had been missing from much of fantasy for some time before that.
Uprooted opens in a Ruritanian community that is threatened by a dark, mysterious forest that is evil in an infectious, magical way; the community is protected by a wizard named the Dragon, whose only condition of protection is that, once a decade, he will choose one young woman of seventeen to serve him for ten years. At the end of that decade, she will be released – but will not return to the valley, and won’t be part of the community from which she came. Agnieszka, the protagonist of Uprooted, knows she won’t be the one chosen, because her beautiful, elegant friend Kasia will be; she herself is clumsy, messy and perpetually slightly dishevelled. But when it comes time, it is Agnieszka who is chosen by the Dragon to begin a ten-year period of servitude for which she is completely unprepared.
Novik deals with this upheaval in the life of all her characters elegantly, and without the emotional dishonesty that much Chosen One fiction peddles in: Agnieszka does wish she hadn’t been chosen, but she also feels guilty for it, knowing that she is thereby wishing her friend had been, a rift in their relationship that can’t be addressed because they are unable to see each other. Uprooted handles the emotional complexity of the transfer to a new place and way of life, of dealing with the Dragon’s very open disapproval of her messiness, and of learning why he ended up – against his own judgement – choosing Agnieszka over Kasia. There’s a beautiful emotional core to the novel that wouldn’t be possible had Novik taken the obvious root of making this a coming of age story, rather than the story of someone who has already come of age; a sense of self-awareness to Agnieszka that is absolutely golden, and something we see all too rarely in a tale like this, allowing her to comment on it in a more (although obviously not fully) mature way than would otherwise be realistic.
This is a very character-driven novel, but that isn’t to say there’s no peril or plot; Uprooted may be gentle and generous, but that’s not to say bad things don’t happen. Bad things include terrible things happening to Kasia and to Agnieszka’s friends from her old life, and include a very well-written and sensitively handled attempted rape of Agnieszka (that she shuts down wonderfully); actions have consequences and magic has a price, but Novik also gives the story a soul of gentleness that is belied by how dark it get. In that sense it’s like the best fairy tales, a tradition Novik openly draws on; dark and scary at times but with an intensely humane core that is never buried under the horrors (scary trees! Is this the next trend?).
It’s also an intensely vibrant, beautiful novel. Uprooted is one of those books it’s impossible to talk about with talking about that nebulous concept, “style”; whereas Novik’s Temeraire series couldn’t really settle between modern and period language and narrative, Uprooted knows exactly what it’s doing, and proceeds to do it beautifully. This is a lush, gorgeous novel, full of neat turns of phrase that do far more work than their length suggests in creating a scene or the world; a novel that is openly interested in the aesthetics of language, of how words can create a sense of story. It’s almost like a song, appropriate given how magic functions in the novel, or like a river of words, flowing along, drawing (rather than dragging) the reader with it, through the slower and the faster passages into the rapids that form the final part of the book before crashing over the waterfall that is the ending of the novel.
Uprooted feels very like Goblin Emperor, despite being a very different book, because of its beautiful language and its core of humanity; if you’re wondering where that has gone in much modern fantasy, and even if you’re not, I cannot strongly enough urge you to read this!