LitStack Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

by Sharon Browning

Naomi Novik
Del Rey
First Edition:  May 19, 2015
ISBN 978-0-8041-7904-1

Agnieszka is a girl who lives in a quiet village in a green valley.  She is sweet natured, and indistinguishable from the other children save for the fact that she always seems to be disheveled and dirty, constantly spattered with mud or with some tear in her sleeve from being caught by a branch during one of her forays into the woods for berries or mushrooms.  She is a Dragon-born girl, birthed in a year where, when she turns seventeen,  the Dragon (not a creature of fire and ash, but the local hermetic wizard from the nearby Tower ) will chose one local girl and take her away to his Tower for who knows what reason.  The girl taken will not be seen for ten years, at which time the Dragon will release her, and choose another girl for another ten year tenure in the Tower.

Everyone knows how important the Dragon is to the valley, for he protects them all against the malevolent Wood that grows on its border.  He keeps the Wood and its corruption at bay, and assists when evil creatures erupt to attack those who wander too close or who prove vulnerable to its aggression.  Is it too much to ask to allow him one girl every ten years in return for his help and protection?  It’s not like he eats the girls, after all. (“… 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.”)

There are eleven Dragon-born girls in Nieszka’s year, but everyone knows that Kasia will be the one taken.  The Dragon always takes the best – the prettiest, the smartest, the most talented – and Kasia is all of those.  She is also Nieszka’s best friend, and both girls fear the day of taking because they do not want to be parted from one another.  But Kasia is brave, and knows it is her duty to go with the Dragon for the good of the valley.

Then the totally unexpected happens.  Kasia is not the one chosen – it is grubby, clumsy Nieszka who is claimed, with an ungracious, “you then, I suppose”, and immediately her life is changed forever.

I must admit that I had been aware of Uprooted for some time, but had not felt compelled to read it.  I am not familiar with Ms. Novik’s other works (The Temeraire Series), and was frankly burned out on magical fantasy, having been disappointed by more than a few highly touted books claiming to be a new take on traditional fantasy fare.  But this title appeared on so many “best of 2015” lists from so many divergent sources, that I thought it would be worth giving it a try.

I found myself pleasantly surprised that while the theme of the book did, in fact, follow the arc of traditional (read:  familiar) fairy/folk tales, the elements within the story arc were diverse in unexpected ways (without lobbing bombshells at the end of every chapter).  One of my favorite instances of this is the treatment of magic as having a diversity underlying the practitioners drawing from it.  Folded throughout the novel are two distinct approaches to magic:  one, disciplined and precise, and the other, free flowing and organic.

“It’s just – a way to go.  There isn’t only one way to go.”  I waved at his notes.  “You’re trying to find a road when there isn’t one.  It’s like – it’s gleaning in the woods,” I said abruptly.  “You have to pick your way through the thickets and the trees, and it’s different every time.”

While neither approach is superior, it takes a while for each proponent to understand and appreciate the diversity of the other, which then leads to their ability to work together.  None of this is surprising, it’s the expected way that such stories go.  But Ms. Novik allows this understanding to evolve rather than bestowing it on the reader with euphoric revelations.  There are few ah-ha! moments here, but the moments of awareness are beautifully rendered.  And, it allows us to concentrate on the characters as fuller creatures than ones that simply cast spells and chant incantations.

Plus, the plot is thick.  Not complicated, but full and rich.  There are numerous storylines that do not branch out so much as move the story forward.  Given the propensity for multiple books in a series, I was impressed that so much ground was covered in a standalone novel, rather than trying to stretch the story out rather than break it up into two or even three slimmer volumes (or bulk it up into two or three more conventional volumes).  I found myself satiated at the end of the story – not bloated nor still hungry.  It was, in fairy tale parlance, just right.

So for once, I’m glad I listened to those recommendations from the “best of” lists.  Uprooted is indeed a well written, charming, thoroughly involving novel that hits just the right spots in a on-again/off-again genre.  It definitely deserves all the accolades it’s been collecting.

~ Sharon Browning


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