Naomi Novik’s novel Uprooted reads like a Fairy Tale. It follows Agnieszka, who loves her home despite the corruption of the Wood that surrounds it. The people of her village and within the surrounding valley give a young woman to the “Dragon” (human wizard, not a large reptile) as a tribute for their protection from the Wood. Everyone knows that her friend Kasia will be taken, that is until the day of the choosing when he instead takes Agnieszka. The story follows her and the Dragon as they work to protect the kingdom and wage war against the growing Wood. The world created by Novik is all encompassing, and I was most drawn to her depiction of natural places overtaking man-made ones with a vengeance.
SPOILERS BELOW THE CUT
This book was exactly the correct amount of distraction for a stressful weekend as I get ready for a big move. But it was not perfect, as I pulled myself out of the world of the story I began to see problematic attitudes of the characters, and the cardboard cutouts began to topple over.
This was a distracting novel full of strong images and magic, and dealing with what can hold people to an unruly place. The magic of the wood comes from the first people who lived in the valley, as they grew older they turned into trees. But as the country turned to industry and people forgot where they came from, the desire to become one with the land lessens, and the people-turned-trees start to become corrupted, pulling evil bitterness into the land and creating a horrifying space.
It’s been a long time since I felt the need to walk into work while reading a physical book, but the story twists and turns in ways that you don’t know everything is going to end up okay. There was very much a “there-are-forty-pages-left-and-the-army-has been-destroyed-but-the-Wood-is-still-a-living-breathing-adversary-and-his-story-couldn’t-possibly-end-with-the-Wood-winning-and-I-really-need-to-go-clock-in” moment. Novik managed to keep me on my toes, trying to anticipate her next move and what was going to happen next.
As I started to pull myself out the book I realized the world and setting were what held this book together. Agnieszka starts the book describing herself as “a too-skinny colt of a girl with big feet and tangled dirt-brown hair, and my only gift, if you could call it that, was I would tear or stain or lose anything put on my between the hours of one day” (6). While this messiness is probably meant to be endearing, it becomes a stand in for any true character flaws and she becomes a Mary-Sue, upon discovering her powers it is heavily implied that she is a descendant of Jaga (one of the first witches in the valley who had an affinity for working with the woods). The “Dragon” is a dick. He is a 150-year old wizard and chooses girls from the valley for his tributes, but he doesn’t touch them only using them as live-in servants. From the first moment, he arrives in the tower with Agnieszka he begins berating her for her appearance: “The dirtiest thing in the tower is you…” “I do recall the girl: neither horse-faced nor a slovenly mess…” (22, 23). And those comments would be neither here nor there if there had been a change in his character later in the book, but there isn’t: ““You intolerable lunatic,” he snarled at me, and then he caught my face between his hands and kissed me” (158). The most obnoxious thing about this book was the forced romantic plotline between these two people, it was unnecessary. While it was heavily implied that this love mostly came from the mixing of their magic, and this was an interesting tension that I would have loved to watched play out, but it wasn’t given the space in the plot to be a fully realized idea.
But back to the characters: the Prince is a self-serving prat and not fully fleshed out, the other witches and wizards that we meet in the city are stand-in obstacles for the main character to overcome. The most interesting character in the novel is Kaisa, yes, the girl everyone thought the dragon would choose but doesn’t, she is taken by the woods and saved by Agnieszka, but the woods don’t fully let her go, turning her into a person made of tree with a desire to see those she is closest to happy and safe.
I managed to ignore the faults in characterization for the word that Novik creates with powerful land magic and her writing is beautiful. In the set-up for scenes, she doesn’t ignore a single detail and you can see the world grow around you while reading.
Recommendation: If you’re looking for a distraction you can find it here. The world created can pull you out of whatever madness you’re facing in this one. I will warn you though, (again) that there is not a real reptilian dragon in this (which is why I picked it up, there is a dragon on the cover!). But it is a fun summer read, and would be worth grabbing from the library if you are able to read for setting and ignore how annoying characters are.