Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Review - Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Short review: Agnieszka is chosen by the Dragon to be locked away in his tower. Things don't go as planned.

Unexpected choice
Unexpected magic skill
Unexpected end

Full review: Uprooted is an absolutely brilliant coming of age story set in a world that straddles the line between fantasy and fable. Centered on the precocious young teenager Agnieszka, the story follows her as she goes from being a clueless and somewhat naive young girl to a self-assured and confident woman who is embroiled in political intrigues and enchanted entanglements that threaten not only her, but everyone she loves as well. Novik is best known for her excellent Tremeraire series, which is essentially Horatio Hornblower with dragons, complete with very proper British officers. Uprooted, on the other hand, is a secondary world fantasy tinged with eastern European folklore and myth. This makes it a serious departure from Novik's previous work, and it is a departure that has produced an excellent book.

Agnieszka is a fairly ordinary young girl living in the country of Polnya in a small village in the valley, almost in the shadow of the Wood. Unfortunately, the Wood is a cursed and dangerous place that threatens the entire nation - full of horrors that sometimes leave the shade of the twisted and rotten trees to seize hapless villagers and spirit them away, never to return. Fortunately, the village is under the protection of the Dragon, who rules over the entire valley, who works assiduously to hold back the encroaching Wood, and is sometimes able to push it back for a time. In return, the Dragon only asks for regular tribute of food and goods, and once every ten years, a seventeen year old girl. Agnieszka is the right age to be one of the girls offered for tribute, but she and everyone else assume that she is safe because they assume that the Dragon will choose the beautiful and vivacious Kesia, who has been all but groomed by her family to be selected.

Needless to say, the Dragon doesn't choose Kesia, but instead chooses Agnieszka, much to everyone's surprise, and at least for a period of time, the Dragon's apparent dismay. This flip, while fairly predictable, is also packaged with Novik's mild sleight of hand as she reveals that the Dragon isn't actually a Dragon, but is instead a long-lived human wizard who just happens to be named "the Dragon". To a certain extent, this seems like Novik playing a small joke using her reader's expectations - after all, her previous series of books was a historical fantasy whose only serious point of departure from the real world was the addition of dragons. In a way, this signals to the reader that the meta narrative in this story is that things are not going to match their expectations, and this turns out to be a recurring theme throughout the book.

The story itself weaves together Agnieszka's growing into adulthood and her own power, and the story of the Dragon's ongoing war against the Wood, which eventually he shares with Agnieszka. It turns out that Agnieszka has an affinity for magic, which the Dragon has somewhat reluctantly undertaken to nurture - as he explains at one point, the alternative would be to leave her latent talents undeveloped and ready to be claimed by the power that inhabits the Wood. But Agnieszka turns out to be fairly inept as a wizard's apprentice, always flubbing her attempted spells, and even somewhat less than skilled at mundane tasks such as cooking daily meals. Before too long, a crisis drives Agnieszka to push herself, and she discovers that her magic doesn't work in a manner that the Dragon expected. This untidy and unorthodox approach to the practice of magic annoys the Dragon to no end, but it does result in Agnieszka figuring out how to actually accomplish some useful things with her abilities.

The dismay expressed by the Dragon at the way Agnieszka uses magic is a thread that runs through the rest of the book. When Agnieszka finds a book by the legendary witch Jaga, the Dragon declares that he had already looked at it and determined that it is useless, because he couldn't make use of the information the book contained. Except that the book makes perfect sense to Agniezska, and forms the basis for her own magical endeavors. Every time Agnieszka is introduced to a new wizard, they often refuse to believe that she can actually work magic, because her magic is "wrong", and doesn't fit into the categories and methods that they are used to. Father Ballo, the curator of the royal library of magical works, even refuses to believe that Jaga is an actual historical figure, and claims to have culled vast numbers of books from the arcane collection because they were "wrong". From one perspective, the story is that Agnieszka is an oddball whose magic simply doesn't fit into the normal and accepted modes, but one has to wonder if the resistance that Agnieszka faces is because she is a woman, and she approaches the practice of magic in a manner unfamiliar to that of her male counterparts. The erasure of Jaga from "official" history seems to be another piece in the puzzle. In short, there seems to be the suggestion that the magical contributions of women are being suppressed when those contributions don't meet the expectations of the male wizards who control the levers of power.

This lack of respect for the magic that Agnieszka embodies seems to have cost the Polnya dearly, as her power complements the power used by the Dragon, making some spells and enchantments possible that the Dragon claims are either too difficult to pull off or actually impossible. It is Agnieszka's power that changes the nature of the battle between the Dragon and the Wood, making the conflict both more dangerous, and potentially winnable. But to get there requires a circuitous and deadly route, because the Wood turns out to be more devious and more insidious than anyone ever expected. The story seems to be one of Agniezska bumbling about getting into trouble and having to work her way out of it, usually with the Dragon's assistance, and then others following her lead and getting themselves into trouble and having to be helped out of it, but eventually it becomes clear that there is a purpose behind the poor decision-making displayed by so many characters in the story, and that purpose is the result of the influence of a malevolent magical power.

As the story progresses, Agniezska learns and grows, shedding her innocent and naive ideas about the world, and coming to a greater understanding of the true powers that exist in her world, and exactly how much more danger there is in her world than she had previously known. The key to the book is that things are almost never as one thinks they are to begin with, with the expectations of the characters (and alongside them, the reader) turned upside down at almost every turn. This theme recurs in trivial ways, such as an abortive friendship Agniezska strikes up with a young lady at court, and in large ways, such as the resolution to the conflict with the Wood, which turns on understanding the somewhat legitimate rage that motivates the malign entity that resides within its heart, and figuring out a way to turn that rage aside.

Overall, Uprooted is a beautiful story with an intriguing and engaging central character, a supporting cast that consists of fully-fleshed out people, and a villain that is both horrifyingly evil, and all too recognizably human in their motivations. The world that underlies all of the action is equal parts lovely and terrifying, although to be honest, even though it draws upon eastern European folklore, it feels more like the product of Novik's own imagination than it feels like something from a fairy tale. While the book does have some weaknesses - Agnieszka seems to master the magical arts improbably fast, and gains an adult level of maturity similarly rapidly - but these are minor faults that can be overlooked in the service of such a magnificently told story. In the end, Uprooted is a wonderful bildungsroman with a magical mix of intrigue, adventure, and horror, that delivers on all fronts.

2015 Locus Award Winner for Best Fantasy Novel: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

2015 Mythopoeic Award Winner for Best Adult Fantasy Literature: Tales from Rugosa Coven by Sarah Avery

2015 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novel: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

List of Locus Award Winners for Best Fantasy Novel
List of Mythopoeic Award Winners for Best Adult Fantasy Literature
List of Nebula Award Winners for Best Novel

2016 Hugo Award Finalists
2016 Locus Award Nominees
2016 Mythopoeic Award Nominees
2016 Nebula Nominees

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

Naomi Novik     Book Reviews A-Z     Home


  1. This is a book that is on my Goodreads list. I am pleased you thought so highly of it.

    1. @fredamans: I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did!