I haven’t had a chance to talk about her on this blog yet, but Naomi Novik is one of my favorite authors and fandom personalities. She’s a founder of one of our favorite sites, the Archive of Our Own, and she’s also writing one of my favorite series, the Temeraire novels. So when I found out she’d written a new, standalone book, I leapt at the chance to read it. Uprooted, a story about a female magician fighting to save her kingdom, seemed like it would be right up my alley. And it was—well, kind of.
Minor spoilers to follow.
Uprooted is about a kingdom surrounded by a malevolent Wood—it’s not just a weird forest, it’s a living, breathing, magically-polluted forest which sends poisonous pollen, diseased animals, and even walking tree-like creatures into the surrounding areas, trying to expand its borders and killing those in its way. Sometimes it even takes people into the Wood, never to be heard from again. Our heroine, Agnieszka (pronounced ag-NYESH-kah), is from a tiny border village right by the Wood, and she’s lived her whole life under the protection of a wizard titled the Dragon. The Dragon does a pretty fair job, but none of the villagers like him, and everyone is afraid of him. Unfortunately for Agnieszka, the Dragon soon discovers that she has the ability to be a witch. Neither of them particularly want to work with the other, but the Dragon says that things from the Wood would consume her if she doesn’t learn to control her powers, and after seeing what she can do, Agnieszka reluctantly agrees. The two of them soon discover that by working together, they might be able to get rid of the Wood once and for all.
If I had one major complaint about this book, it would be that Uprooted was not the book I thought it would be. The paragraph above is a more accurate summary of the novel than the summary that we got. Consider the one on the inside flap:
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.
Just from that, one would probably imagine that Uprooted was a revisionist fairy tale, possibly working off Beauty and the Beast. One might also assume, judging particularly by the first couple of chapters, that the main romance in the novel would be between Agnieszka and Kasia. Neither of these things turned out to be true. Uprooted was indeed working off fairy tales—namely Polish fairy tales, from the author’s own Polish heritage—but it did not set out to retell any particular fairy tale. (Unfortunately, I’m unfamiliar with Polish folklore, so I can’t comment on how accurate or original Novik’s version of it is.) Instead, Novik creates and populates her own world with her own magic and magicians.
Second, and more important, was the relationship between Agnieszka and Kasia. Well beyond the first couple of chapters—Kasia is one of the Wood’s victims, and Agnieszka risks everything to save her—Agnieszka’s feelings for Kasia can hardly be overstated. However, soon after Kasia is saved from the Wood, Agnieszka’s feelings turn towards her teacher, the Dragon. While there is some tension between them as teacher and student, nearly the entire first third of the book was devoted to the relationship between Agnieszka and Kasia, and bringing the Dragon forward as a romantic option felt rushed, underdeveloped, and ineffective. I stuck around, hoping that Agnieszka and Kasia would at least continue to be great friends with interesting conversations, but that wasn’t the case, either. The author can write whichever relationship she wants to, of course, but the sudden about-face from Agnieszka/Kasia to Agnieszka/the Dragon seemed extremely inorganic, and I spent the rest of the book sadly mourning the absence of a same-sex relationship that I’d thought was a sure thing.
Both of the above points worked together to pull the carpet out from under me, so to speak, and not in a particularly good way, either. However, after I’d come to terms with the book I was reading, not the one that had been advertised to me, the rest of the book had no such illusions. We launched into an action-adventure story, one in which Agnieszka and the Dragon tried their utmost to destroy the Wood before it could destroy their kingdom. Novik’s worldbuilding was spectacular—the Wood wasn’t just lovely, dark, and deep, it was also fucking terrifying, and Novik’s prose renders the suspense so thick that it fairly drips off the branches and into your skin. The suspense never lets up, and if you have an anxiety disorder, I would strongly recommend not reading this book all at once, if possible. (Speaking from experience.) Novik takes “man vs nature” to an entirely new level, and after a roller coaster of a ride, the ending is enormously, viscerally satisfying.
The magic of the book was also excellently done. The Dragon at first attempts to teach Agnieszka his ways: very precise measurements and incantations; everything has to be enunciated just so. However, none of these work for Agnieszka beyond the simplest of spells, and the Dragon despairs of ever making a real magician of her. Purely by chance, Agnieszka discovers some “notes” in the Dragon’s library, written by a witch called Jaga. Though the Dragon dismisses these spells as incomplete nonsense, Agnieszka finds that she can perform them. These spells rely on what the Dragon thinks of as guesswork and what Agnieszka thinks of it as traveling through a dense forest (fittingly enough); you can’t go through it the same way twice. The two of them are finally able to combine their disparate magic abilities in a duet that works to bring Kasia out of the Wood—the first such victim who’s ever been saved.
Agnieszka is a brilliant protagonist, and the story itself is compelling in much the same way that a black hole is compelling. Just, before you read it, really understand that the book is not going to be what you think it will be from the first chapters, so you don’t feel as betrayed as I did. Other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I found myself struck again by the fully-realized worlds Novik brings to life in all her stories. I’d absolutely recommend Uprooted to everyone who reads this blog.