Book Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

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Uprooted by Naomi Novik is a modern and dark fairy tale. Oh, and I absolutely loved it. It is possibly – alongside The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden – my favourite book that I have read this year so far. Maybe slightly dark, Eastern European inspired fantasy is my thing. Who knew.

Uprooted tells the story of Agnieszka, a girl from a small village in a secluded valley. In this valley, a girl is chosen from among the villages and taken by the ‘Dragon’ every ten years to be held captive in his tower. After ten years they leave the tower and are free to return to their village. However, they never return quite the same and always quickly leave the valley, never to return. In Uprooted, Agnieszka is the girl chosen and we follow her as she discovers secrets and battles to defeat the mysterious and malevolent Wood that threatens to overwhelm not only their valley, but the whole kingdom.

The relationship that develops between Agnieszka and the Dragon is a real highlight of this book. I enjoyed watching this develop throughout the story as there is very little on the face of it that should endear them to each other. Agnieszka is ‘plain’ with no real outstanding features, apart from her ability to always, always make a mess and incredibly clumsy. She fulfils all the stereotypes of a medieval peasant girl, at least initially. On the flipside, the Dragon is a powerful wizard with the ear of the king; he is very meticulous in everything he does, including with magic, but also with his appearance, his food, and his sense of propriety. It is safe to say that the Dragon is a perfectionist. Their relationship starts of as expected, with Agnieszka driving the Dragon up the walls with frustration, but as her story develops, she earns a grudging respect and a true friendship starts to develop. I did enjoy the other friendships that occur throughout the story, especially Agnieszka and her childhood friend, Kasia, which was a great example of a strong, touching and heart-warming friendship, but it wasn’t quite as rewarding to read as Agnieszka’s and the Dragon’s relationship.

However, my favourite thing in the book was the Wood. The Wood is fantastically evil and every time it makes an appearance, it exudes menace. Novik’s description of the Wood is wonderfully vivid and conjures up all the images that exist in your head of the woods as a place of darkness and danger from old traditional tales. She then really plays into these to create a brilliant villain that, for large parts of the story, acts as a kind of faceless evil casting a shadow across the world. Fear of the Wood permeates through every part of society in this book and this really helps to give us a sense of the danger that it represents.

Now, I know this book isn’t loved by everyone. It seems to be either hated or loved, and I definitely loved it, but I do feel that I should address some of the common complaints about it. Firstly, I know many people get annoyed with how magic works in the book. At first, it appears quite rigid and rule-based, certainly with the Dragon anyway, but throughout the story these are broken time and time again. Magic, however, isn’t science. In some fantasy universes the rules are very strong, this isn’t one of them and I think this is something you need to just work with when reading this novel. It’s not like there aren’t consequences to magic use in the story; if you cast a very powerful spell then you feel weak and depleted after. This does happen in the novel, so it isn’t like there are no rules, they’re just not rigidly set in stone. If you can’t get past that, then perhaps this book isn’t for you.

The other common complaint that I have seen is the stories pace. Yes, this book is very fast paced, but it is a standalone book. It isn’t a whole epic fantasy series like Game of Thrones or The Kingkiller Chronicles, so to get the whole story into one book the pace had to be fast. I don’t doubt that this story could have been written as a series and stretched out over two, three or four books. Maybe four would have been a stretch, but that isn’t what Naomi Novik wanted to do and I liked being able to just pick u a book, read it, get engrossed in it, and then finish the story line without having to wait years and years for the books to be done. Which is quite refreshing and unique in itself in modern fantasy.

Uprooted is a book that I would recommend. There isn’t really much else to say, it was fun, fast paced and enthralling and I think most people will like it, but I know not everyone will. However, it’s worth the risk.