by Naomi Novik
Published May, 2015
From Goodreads: “Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.”
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, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling 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 Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.
I’ve had a hard time finding fantasy novels that appeal to me lately. It seems like every author out there has decided to plunge into the epic realm of trilogies with 800+ page books, or writes long series where the emphasis is either on how cool the magic system is, or is populated by characters I don’t care about. It feels like finding a good standalone fantasy novel is like finding the proverbial unicorn, so when I find that particular unicorn and discover that it’s just a gray horse with a plastic horn strapped to its head (that is, a lousy standalone novel), It’s terribly disappointing.
So I was happy to see a BookRiot article listing seven standalone fantasy novels, especially when one of the most interesting-looking books was also a 2015 favorite of NPR’s, and the winner of the 2015 Nebula Award for Best Novel. With that high praise, I had high hopes for Uprooted, and it did not disappoint.
There is a particular set of tropes around the ‘Strong Female Character’ in which a teenage girl so despises sitting around and sewing that she breaks away from the feminine expectations of her culture and runs away to join the circus/army/sisterhood of pirate-ninja-assassins where she learns to wield a sword/magic and becomes an amazing fighter/wizard/acrobatic-assassin-courtesan. Or whatever. And while the fantastical universe is large enough to accommodate vast armies of teenage witches/vampire hunter-fashionistas/weapons-masters, such tropes fail to take into account the necessity of “women’s work”, which is once again set aside as unimportant work meant to keep women from becoming the warriors/sorceresses/pirate-hunting-samurai they were meant to be.
But if our snarky teenage heroines are running into battle, sword in one hand and magic in the other without things like clothes and shoes, they’re going to have some problems.
So I was happy to see a main character like Agnieszka. Here is strong a young woman who doesn’t wail and moan about her fate to one day marry someone, have children, and continue doing vital work for her family and community. Her work– sewing clothes, gathering food, tending to the animals– is as important to her family’s survival as any other work, and this makes Agnieszka herself important. This means that it’s a blow to her family when she, not her brilliant friend Kasia, is Chosen by the Dragon, the sorcerer who lives in a high tower and guards the people of region from the encroaching evil of The Wood.
Fortunately– or perhaps unfortunately– for Agnieszka, the Dragon soon discovers that she has magic and so he must teach her the arcane skills that will help her develop her abilities and keep her from being devoured by The Wood’s evil, or by the politics of the royal court.
The magic of Uprooted is refreshing, as well. Instead of long discussions of how and why the magic works, we know that the Dragon’s magic is summoned by rote– with specific spells found in books and scrolls– where Agnieszka’s magic is different and comes to her with childhood songs and intuition. The few explanations about one spell or another that are provided are necessary to the plot, and aren’t there for Novik to show off how clever she is.
And while the magic is integral to the story and how the characters reach the ending, it’s Agnieszka’s love of her family and community that ultimately helps her find a way through the thorny situations she finds herself in. Being a simple country girl means she’s not interested in the politicking of the royal court or how to advance her own station. She wants to save her family and her country’s people from The Wood’s evil, and the solutions she finds are unorthodox and true to her character.
There was no point where Novik’s writing hit the wrong note and knocked me out of the story, and while there were parts where I wanted to shout at Agnieszka or the Dragon and tell them to stop being dolts, it made for a more satisfying conclusion to their differences once they finally started working together. The prose is lovely, as well, which adds extra sweetness to the whole work.
While Uprooted has the feeling of a fairy tale, there are certain points that are not meant for younger readers. But older teens and up will find this to be a fascinating story, and perhaps make them think about finding alternative solutions to their own conflicts.