Written by: Naomi Novik
Pages: 448 (Kindle)
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Del Rey
Why I Chose It: I’ve been a fan of Naomi Novik since she first introduced us to Temeraire 10 years ago. I’ve always enjoyed her writing style and humor, so I had my eye on this to read even before it turned up on the Hugo ballot. It doesn’t hurt that Del Rey gave it some gorgeous cover art, either.
“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.
THERE’S ONE SPOILER DEAD AHEAD. FAIR WARNING!
Discussion: I think my only real spoiler is only half a spoiler, as it’s certainly strongly hinted at in the teaser blurb: Kasia is not the girl the Dragon chooses; Agnieszka is. This happens very early in the book, and is the catalyst for the rest of the story, so it’s a bit hard to get along without mentioning it. But from here on out I think I’ll be able to do a decent job of skirting specific plot points. 🙂
Let’s start with the brilliant characters. The interaction between Agnieszka and the Dragon is perfectly pitched, very funny and completely in character for each of them. I was afraid that Kasia would fade into a footnote, and was extremely happy that she had more to do than *not* be chosen. Female characters — Yes! More than one! More than two, even! — are intelligent, respected, active, and effective in their actions. They rescued the men as often as they were helped or rescued themselves, held positions of authority, and accomplished things that others declared impossible. And I really enjoyed the play on Kasia’s name and her final fate/state/development, both internal and external, because I am a word nerd. (I’m sorry, I can’t be more specific without spoiling).
Novik wove complex relationships between friends and family members, from the families’ treatment of the girls who were expected to be chosen to the strange twist in Agnieszka and Kasia’s friendship because of their expected fates. It lends an air of reality, of the best fairy tales that teach us about real life rather than feeding platitudes and showing only perfect examples of heroism and villainy.
I had a few questions about the mechanics of the magic system, and especially about some of the apparent inconsistencies in the ways Agnieszka performed magic versus the traditionally understood methods, but in the end I believed it all well enough to not be bothered. It helped that this is quite clearly a folk tale in style, and magics are very seldom analyzed in the old stories, as opposed to the recent trend of being turned into their own variety of science all the time.
The Wood, the Valley, and their connection with one another were compelling and complex as well. Agnieszka’s revelations about them, about the Valley’s residents, and about the Dragon and his choices in how to be connected — or not — to all the rest were satisfying and felt organic.
The overall feel of this reminded me in all the best ways of one of my all-time favorite modern fairy/folk stories, Sharon Shinn’s Summers at Castle Auburn, with the addition of some wonderful action/physical scenes. It was a great balance and I expect I’ll reread Uprooted every few years just like I do Summers.
In Conclusion: Uprooted is worth your time, especially if you’re a fan of fairy and folk tales. Its page count feels a little high (I read it on the Kindle, and felt it moved quickly and was no longer than a “standard” genre novel) but I hope that won’t put people off, as the narrative is smooth and engaging. Its characters (yes, even the villain) are real people, with strengths and flaws, and the world comes ‘round right in the end.
I would be perfectly happy to see an entire series set in the rich world Novik has created, especially as the larger kingdom’s story is not entirely tied up with a pretty bow, but I know that’s not the current plan and everything resolved plenty well enough for me to be content with the ending. I’m currently on the lookout for a hardback copy on the cheap so I can add it to my physical library. Will it win the Hugo? I’m not sure, especially as I feel the Hugo’s tend toward more science fiction than pure fantasy, but it certainly deserves the nod, and the Nebula it’s already won.