Deeply Rooted and Fully Grown: A Review of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted

b00kuqiu7o-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_Uprooted (2015)
Written by: Naomi Novik
Genre: Fantasy
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.

The Premise:

“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 charactersYes! 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).

uprootedNovik 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.

14 Comments

  • Lane Robins August 17, 2016 at 11:03 am

    I enjoyed this way more than I expected to. Some kind soul, meaning to lure me in, told me it was a Beauty and the Beast retelling, and oh boy do I have issues with that fairy tale. I’m glad the hugo read gave me the impetus to read it, because I really enjoyed it.

    I had a few of the same blurred magic issues–Agnieska’s intuitive magics vs the more structured magics of the Dragon–but thought Novik pulled it off just by the way she (dancing around spoilers) portrayed the magics of the Wood and the way it affected the villages in its path.

    Reply
    • Betsy Whitt August 17, 2016 at 11:55 am

      That’s really interesting, that someone described it as Beauty and the Beast…. I guess it has a girl going into isolation with the Dragon, but that’s where the similarities end, in my opinion. Agnieszka isn’t the Valley’s beauty, nor is she seen as particularly desirable in any fashion at first–the Dragon is actually annoyed at his social obligation to choose and train her latent magic; the arrangement isn’t made via her father (or in exchange for his safety); the “beast” isn’t cursed, but is actually a sort of public defender.

      Novik’s own note at the end of the novel cites her strong inspiration by the Eastern European Baba Jaga/Yaga stories, which I’m woefully unfamiliar with and which I now want to find and immerse myself in to see how she did and didn’t weave them into this material.

      And yeah, I felt like Novik connected Agnieska (and the other Valley inhabitants) to the Wood, and that might have affected her magical style or ability.

      Reply
  • Jessie Kerr-Whitt August 17, 2016 at 1:27 pm

    I just finished this book last night, and, despite the rave review I’d heard before beginning and my expectation that it couldn’t possibly be that good, I found it to be compelling and excellent! I don’t usually like reading battle scenes, but these were generally not overly long and were different enough to be readable. The characters are well-developed, and I too appreciate the strong women. I really liked the different kinds of magic and the interpretation that there are different wells from which to draw the magic beneath it all (so to speak). I was very comfortable with that… and I liked the references to the witch, Baba Jaga, in my favorite childhood magic stories. Fun book, well-written!

    Reply
    • Betsy Whitt August 17, 2016 at 2:33 pm

      I’m so glad you liked it! Full disclosure, Jessie is my mother-in-law, and I *might* be the person who recommended it to her and gave her the rave reviews. *whistles innocently*

      Reply
      • Shara White August 17, 2016 at 3:45 pm

        Good for you! New fans make more new fans!

        Reply
  • Shara White August 17, 2016 at 3:48 pm

    I received this book for my birthday last October and tore through it. Recollection is fuzzy, but I loved the book and gave it five stars on Goodreads. And those COVERS. SO PRETTY.

    Reply
    • Betsy Whitt August 17, 2016 at 4:10 pm

      I LOVE the covers. I’m keeping an eye out for a hardback copy, which are currently crazy overpriced on Amazon’s marketplace. But I want it both so I can reread and so that I own that beautiful art. They did a fantastic job.

      Reply
  • Casey August 17, 2016 at 4:59 pm

    Excellent review of an excellent book. I’m also hunting for a hardcover. It’s really beautiful.

    I hate to do it, but I have to agree with you on the prospects of it winning the Hugo. Last year (I think) The Goblin Emperor, a similar type of novel, was getting similar praise and it didn’t win. I would really like it to win; Novik certainly did a great job here.

    Reply
    • Betsy Whitt August 18, 2016 at 12:35 am

      It’s sad, but true. In some ways I wish they’d just call it more clearly, because I feel like overwhelmingly more fantasy wins the Nebula and more science fiction takes the Hugo. But it is what it is.

      Reply
      • Shara White August 18, 2016 at 8:14 pm

        You know, I’ve heard that before, but I never paid it much mind because I’ve liked the winners in recent years. Though now that I’m looking back, Jo Walton’s Among Others is a fantasy, and I’m pretty sure China Mieville’s The City and the City is fantasy (I’ve STILL got to read that), and so is Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. So since 2010, it’s been a somewhat even mix of SF and Fantasy winners. Plus, I think The Fifth Season has a real shot (as does this), so we may yet see another fantasy winner: I’d be surprised if Stephenson won (book too long, though people may vote on name recognition), and while good, Leckie’s in the third in a trilogy, so the only other contenders are, indeed, fantasy….

        Reply
  • Keyes August 18, 2016 at 8:48 am

    I generally do not care for Novik. I don’t hate the Temeraire books but I don’t particularly love them–I think I’d have liked them a lot more if I’d started the series as an older child and not started trying to read it in my late twenties (that’s not to say I thought it was overly childish, just that as a military brat child who was obsessed with dragons, I’d have probably eaten it with a spoon.) I think I got about halfway through Black Powder War and lost interest.

    I read this book because people kept insisting I needed to do it (…I think Shara was one of the people) and I’m glad because I really, really loved this book. I’d be pleased to see it win, though I doubt it will for the same reasons you doubt it.

    Reply
    • Shara White August 18, 2016 at 8:33 pm

      I’d enjoy seeing this win as well.

      Reply
  • janicu August 19, 2016 at 11:38 am

    One thing about this book is that I found it surprisingly creepy. I don’t really get too creeped out while reading but the woods here were really frickin’ creepy! I would NOT want to live near there.

    Reply
    • Shara White August 20, 2016 at 7:59 am

      It was creepy, wasn’t it? I never gave that much thought, but it absolutely was!

      Reply

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