Title: Uprooted (2015)
Author: Naomi Novik
Publisher: Pan MacMillan
Extent: 438 pages
Release Date: May 21, 2015
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.
My first thought when it comes to Uprooted is: finally, a fantasy standalone! It seems like most of the fantasy releases recently have all been part of some series — if not a trilogy, then it’s a tetralogy, a pentalogy, or something else with even more books. I enjoy long series as much as the next person, but sometimes I just want something that finishes when I close the back cover, you know? Uprooted, thankfully, delivers not only that but also a thrilling novel with an awesomely creepy villain.
This book is the story of 17-year-old Agnieszka, who grew up in a small village protected by the Dragon, a (human) wizard who takes one girl every ten years to his tower home. Agnieszka has always grown up believing that it is her best friend Kasia who will be picked, but when the time comes, it is her the Dragon brings with him. It sounds like Beauty and the Beast, I know, but I promise you: that’s only the beginning. There’s magic, there’s wizards and witches… and there’s the Wood.
Those the walkers carried into the Wood were less lucky. We didn’t know what happened to them, but they came back out sometimes, corrupted in the worst way: smiling and cheerful, unharmed. They seemed almost themselves to anyone who didn’t know them well, and you might spend half a day talking with one of them and never realize anything was wrong, until you found yourself taking up a knife and cutting off your own hand, putting out your own eyes, your own tongue, while they kept talking all the while, smiling, horrible.
The Wood is probably one of my favourite things about Uprooted. It’s a forest full of trees that corrupts anyone who enters it with evil. Some never come back, and those who did are never the same ever since: they might look the same, sound the same, but the core of the human is gone, replaced by malevolence. There’s a real element of human versus nature here — the Wood is presented as impossible to defeat: over the decades, its territory has only expanded, and our protagonists are in a race against time. It’s creepy and threatening, and I freakin’ loved it.
Novik’s writing vibed really well with me from the very first page. Uprooted reads to me like a fairy tale, one inspired by Eastern European cultures and influences (specifically Polish). The magic is not terribly unique — wizards and witches perform spells by way of chants, humming, incantations, etc. — but I love how its power also depends on the performer’s personality, tone and attitude. It’s a fantasy with a very vivid setting, one written more for an adult audience.
And then finally the magic flowed, but not the same way as when the Dragon’s spell-lessons dragged it in a rush out of me. Instead it seemed to me the sound of the chanting became a stream made to carry magic along, and I was standing by the water’s edge with a pitcher that never ran dry, pouring a thin silver line into the rushing current.
The plot is where the book faltered, just a little. I loved the first half of the book, loved getting to know Agnieszka and the Dragon and the world that they live in, but the second half got a little bit muddled for me. The pacing slowed, scenes became a bit repetitive, and I got a little bit confused… although in the interest of full disclosure, it was hours past midnight when I got to it and it could’ve just been, you know, me.
Despite that, though, I enjoyed pretty much every second of this book. I liked the characters, the stolen moments of romance, the unique spin on good and evil, the imaginative setting, and what little complaint I have is likely a matter of mood and preference. If you’re looking for a gripping, standalone fantasy novel, you’ll be right at home with Uprooted. 💞