Review of Uprooted by Naomi Novik
by Naomi Novik
Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
As longtime readers of my reviews will know, I am a big fan of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. Novik’s blending of historical fiction with the fantasy concept of dragons serving in militaries is such a captivating tale. So when Uprooted came out in 2015, I was excited to read Novik’s foray into more traditional fantasy.
Then, of course, I never got around to it. Until now!
Agnieszka lives in a small village near an evil, corrupting Wood. Every ten years, the wizard who protects this group of villages from the encroaching Wood picks a single village girl to serve him for a decade. This wizard, the Dragon, is a fair yet foreboding lord. When Agnieszka is unexpectedly chosen over her more appealing best friend, this triggers a series of magical events that upend the lives of Agnieszka and many, many more. Uprooted draws from the atmosphere of fairy tales, particularly central and eastern European folklore, to pit our protagonist against twisted nature itself.
I’ll be upfront: I loved the first half of this book far more than the second half. From the time Agnieszka is chosen by the Dragon to roughly her arrival at the capital city, I was thoroughly engrossed in this narrative. The second half of the book branched out (pun intended) into a more epic narrative, and to be honest I just kind of lost interest in it all. So I’m going to deal with each half separately and then render a final opinion.
The first half of this book is so lovely. When Agnieszka arrives at the Dragon’s tower, she initially struggles with his attitude towards her, his moods, and her own inability to cope. What I love about this relationship is that Agnieszka constantly refuses to work within the confines the Dragon sets out for her. She pursues numerous little acts of rebellion. Then, when danger arises in another village while the Dragon is dealing with something else, she doesn’t hesitate: she takes matters into her own hands, proving herself heroic.
Agnieszka’s relationship with magic is important too. The way that she feels magic intuitively, versus how the Dragon and other wizards seem to believe it is a highly structured, very formulaic practice, strikes me as a very feminist theme. The wizards seem like a conservative lot in general, and their dismissiveness towards Agnieszka and Jaga and those who would use magic more liberally, based more on feeling than formula, supports this reading. (One theory I developed, which proved not to be borne out, was that Agnieszka becomes Old Jaga—the comment about Jaga saying at her own funeral “I’m unstuck in time” made me think Novik was foreshadowing Agnieszka’s fate to become the very witch whose journals inspired her to find herself.)
In this way, watching Agnieszka grow into herself was just so pleasurable. I curled up under a blanket and thoroughly enjoyed how Novik subverts the idea that women are captured in towers and need to be rescued by princes. Well, the prince in this story is a boorish mama’s boy. Similarly, the Dragon is not a great mentor figure. Watching him transform gradually from a remote, one-dimensional idea in Agnieszka’s eyes to a living, breathing human with a backstory of his own is so great. Novik has studied the symphony of a fairy tale so thoroughly she can reproduce it yet subtly adjust the notes to achieve new and superior harmonies.
The second half of Uprooted, alas, shifts the tone of the book from fairy tale to epic fantasy. I want to be clear that I’m not saying the second half is bad. If you enjoyed every page of this book, that’s cool. But I noticed my attention wandering during the last half in a way that it didn’t near the beginning, and I attribute this to how we went from Agnieszka’s very personal struggles to her and the Dragon fighting a pitched battle against Prince Marek and his evil witch mom. The climax, the last-ditch effort to kill the Wood and save everyone, felt like a confusing fever dream that was difficult for me to follow.
In the end, I enjoyed this book overall, but there’s a gap between what I was hoping it would be and what it ended up being. When that happens, it’s neither the author’s nor the reader’s fault. This is a beautiful standalone fantasy novel that once again showcases Novik’s storytelling skill, and I would recommend it.