Author: Naomi Novik
Everyone who lives in the valley knows to fear the Wood. Any food taken from it is contaminated. Strange, brutal creatures drag innocents in and creep out to destroy crops and livestock. People who pass the Wood’s borders come out vilely corrupted, and the Wood is always looking to expand its borders.
To keep the corruption in check, the people of the valley have a long-standing deal with the wizard known as the Dragon. He uses his power to keep the Wood in check and, in exchange, every ten years a new young woman is chosen to serve him in his impenetrable tower.
The ten year rotation is up, and all the villagers have gathered to offer their crops and their daughters to the Dragon. Eleven girls are of eligible age, but everyone knows it’s Kasia who will be taken. She’s strong, beautiful and talented – everything the Dragon could want. Except when it comes down to it, he chooses Kasia’s best friend Agnieszka instead.
Agnieszka is nothing like the girls the Dragon usually takes. She’s constantly bumping into things, spilling food, snagging her clothes and getting dirt in the most improbable places. She and the precise, immaculate, control freak Dragon are definitely not going to get along. But at the heart of this ill-fated matching is something else entirely – the Dragon recognized the capacity to wield magic within Agnieszka, and is bound by the king’s law to teach her how to use it.
One of the things I appreciated most about Uprooted is that the entire plot is not centered around learning to manage a tempestuous teacher-student relationship.Though it starts that way, there are larger magical and political forces at work. Years ago, the queen of Agnieszka’s country and the prince of a neighboring land ran away together, but both were taken by the Wood. Headstrong Prince Marek is convinced his mother is still alive and is ready to burn down the Wood and go to war over it. For the record, all sane parties recognize this to be a terrible idea.
When Agnieszka is hauled to the capital to be officially recognized as a magic user, she is quickly overwhelmed. In between trying to navigate the subtly conniving ways of the royal court, she has to find a way to convince the ruling powers that the Wood’s threat is rapidly intensifying thanks to some brash moves by Prince Marek. It ultimately breaks down to a rural/urban conflict, with very few of the political elite willing to acknowledge what lies beyond the palace walls.
Another interesting aspect of Uprooted is how author Naomi Novik describes magic being used. The methodology differs from person to person, and their preferred forms of magic correlate to each mage’s personality. While the Dragon’s power thrives on precise incantations, Agnieszka’s magic responds to her mood and intentions with very few guiding words needed.
Neither technique is presented as better or more effective; they’re just different roads to the same result. It reminds me of how Tamora Pierce draws a distinction between academic and ambient mages in her Circle of Magic books. When the time comes for Agnieszka and the Dragon to work together, Novik’s description of how their power blends imparts strength and importance to both of their contributions. If this were a coloring book, the Dragon would be drawing the outlines and Agnieszka would be watercoloring them in.
Personally, I could’ve done without the romance that develops. I think the intense intimacy of sharing magical workings could be conveyed without it turning into lustful attraction. Quite frankly, the romance plays a very small part in the overall story, but the descriptions that are present are just graphic enough that I wouldn’t recommend this to a young teen. That’s unfortunate, because the rest of Uprooted delivers an empowering message about embracing strengths and differences, as well as forgiveness and moving on from past mistakes.
When I first skimmed the pages of Uprooted, I was hesitant about the plethora of names that are non-standard for American English (Agnieszka, Olshanka, Dvernik, etc.). I thought it might be indicative of a fantasy book that tries so hard to prove that it’s not set on our Earth that it comes across as snobbish. I’m happy to report that this couldn’t be further from the truth. Agniezska is down-to-earth and full of vibrant life, and even the Dragon’s clinical detachment is entertaining to read. The world-building is comprehensive and immersive without bogging down the plot, and the overall story ended up being far more complex than I was anticipating. Overall, the brilliant blend of ancient enemies, best friends, misguided intentions and magical forces come together to make Uprooted a definite win.