by Naomi Novik
Review by Sam Lubell
Del Rey Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780804179034
Date: 19 May 2015 List Price $25.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Naomi Novik's Uprooted is compellingly readable. The book is not part of her Temeraire Napoleonic war dragons series and seems to be that fantasy rarity--a stand-alone novel, Yes, on one level it is a variant of the old Sorcerer's Apprentice fairy tale, with a dash of romance. But it transcends the cliché with the adversary not being man or monster, but a twisted form of nature – the Wood.
The Dragon, the most powerful wizard in the kingdom, is stationed in Agnieszka's valley to prevent the spread of the Wood, an evil supernatural force that can corrupt crops, plants, animals, and even people. Years ago, the Wood had captured the kingdom's queen; and, her son, Prince Marek, continues to demand that the Dragon do something to rescue her.
Every ten years, the Dragon chooses a 17-year-old girl from the villages he protects to become his servant. Everyone knows the Dragon will choose Agnieszka's best friend Kasia who is beautiful and brave and an excellent cook. By contrast, Agnieszka, the first person narrator of this novel, is clumsy and "would tear or strain or lose anything put on me". However, the Dragon chooses Agnieszka and takes her to his tower, where, in the first day she almost knocks him down the stairs, makes a mess of her clothes, and botches his dinner. The Dragon calls her "a truly remarkable paragon of incompetence".
He begins teaching her magic spells to transform food into a feast, make homespun clothes into fancy gowns, and clean the tower's rooms. He works magic through her and is constantly irritated when her participation makes the magic go wrong, such as sorting books by color instead of topic. Agnieszka finds the spells incredibly draining, but is comforted by the thought that her predecessors survived this treatment. Then she finds a note from a previous captive with advice on how to live with the Dragon that shows he is treating her very differently from the previous women. Agnieszka is not good at learning traditional spells and would rather wear sturdy clothes than gowns and clean by hand instead of through magic.
Still she does learn a few things and when her old village signals for aid while the Dragon is away, she escapes the tower to help. After proving she does know magic, she is allowed to save the village from the Wood, only to watch helplessly when the Dragon himself becomes infected by the Wood's power. Back in the tower she finds an old spellbook that she uses the cure the Dragon, much to his shock since he could never get those spells to work. It turns out that while Agnieszka is horrible at traditional spells requiring precision, she excels at more free-form magic that is like gleaning for food in a forest without following a path.
When her friend Kashia is taken by the Wood, Agnieszka and the Dragon combine their magic to cure her of the taint. As soon as Prince Marek hears of this, he takes the second-best wizard of the realm to demand that the Dragon and his apprentice do the same thing to rescue and cure the Queen. This leads to some wonderful scenes of Agnieszka as a fish out of water at the court and its intrigue and battles.
The author is careful not to make Agnieszka become too powerful and balances her strengths with her naivety, lack of training, and problems with traditional spells. Still, she does become the youngest-ever court-recognized witch/wizard and is frequently right when the experienced wizards are wrong. Still, she is a delightful character, breaking the traditions of both magic and the court, never forgetting her roots as a woodcutter's daughter. In less assured authorial hands, the Dragon too could have been a stock character, the irritable wizard hiding a sensitive side. But he has a long, complex past and the reasons for his behaviors do make sense. While a romantic relationship develops between Agnieszka and the Dragon, this is a very minor part of the book, mainly expressed through arguing-until-they-kiss scenes.
The Wood is a nicely mysterious adversary. A force of nature, the Wood displays intelligence and an ability to plan and adjust plans in response to opponents' actions. It is a faceless evil for most of the book and the reader does not learn how it came into existence or why it is so determined to spread. In a sense then, the book can be considered anti-environmental as the Wood is clearly evil so Agnieszka and her friends are fighting against nature.
Uprooted seems to be a stand-alone fantasy. While there is certainly room for a sequel, the basic situation is resolved and none of the publicity says anything about this being the start of a series. The book is recommended for readers who like updated fairy tales, strong female characters, and traditional quasi-medieval fantasy with kings and wizards. Despite the main character being a teenage girl, the book does not feel like a YA novel. Still, older teens and young women will probably love this book. There are some strong similarities between the initial situation in this book and Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle, although the two develop in different directions. This is the sort of book that readers will put on their comfort shelf, to be re-read frequently when depressed or upset.