Naomi Novik’s latest book, Uprooted, combines fantasy, fairy tale, and coming of age stories in a way that is both original and deeply compelling. If any of those three descriptors sound interesting, go pick up this book.
Some minor spoilers ahead.
Uprooted is told from the point of view of Agnieszka, who lives in a small town on the border of the malevolent Wood, which seeks domination of the world. Any contact with the Wood or its servants will destroy the soul and strengthen it. However, the wizard which keeps the danger at bay is a horror on his own. In exchange for his protection, the wizard, called the Dragon, chooses one local girl to serve him in his tower for ten years. No girl who goes ever stays, there’s something about the service the Dragon demands that changes them too much for simple village life to satisfy them.
Agnieszka grows up feeling lucky, since everyone knows her best friend, Kasia, will be chosen. She’s the beautiful, kind, graceful one and always has been. But when the time comes, the Dragon chooses Agnieszka for the magical aptitude the girl doesn’t even realize she has. So instead of the service every other taken girl endured, Agnieszka becomes embroiled in the Dragon’s paranoid fight against the Wood and the royal politics. Because the Wood isn’t an unthinking evil, it’s smart. It has plans. And no one, save Agnieszka and the Dragon, seem to be truly aware of its insidious ways.
In a way, Uprooted traces fantasy from its origins in fairy tales and folklore through to the epics we see today. Novik places them in dialogue, with Agnieszka’s village representing fairy tales and the politicians and academics of the ruling class representing epic fantasy. And, at the end of the day, folklore proves more powerful.
Throughout, Agnieszka’s power isn’t the kind of academic magic so common in fantasy. In fact, she fails completely whenever she’s forced to channel her power through “acceptable” spells. Her magic is instinctive and has more in common with Baba Yaga than Harry Potter. She doesn’t like the beautiful gowns the Dragon’s magic conjures, preferring the clothes of her village, And so she manages to “cure” the wood, rather than simply contain it.
The world Novik creates is rich with history, and it feels like Uprooted only scratches the surface. It’s beautifully detailed but not over-explained, as Novik trusts the reader to see the shape of things without a history textbook being plopped into the middle of the story. It’s a wonderful example of “show don’t tell” in writing.
Novik’s writing is sharp, dense, and very funny. It’s also dark, violent, and sexual. Which is a reminder that “fairy tale” doesn’t mean clean, easy, and happy. Novik recaptures the original flavor of fairy tales in the Grimm sense, but puts her own original spin on it. The message about friendship and connection are timeless, while the message about respecting nature gives it a particular timeliness.
I’d recommend setting aside a large chunk of time to devote to Uprooted. I didn’t intend to, but once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. I was sad it was over, but I honestly can’t think of anything missing from the story of Uprooted. It is perfectly complete.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.