“Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and 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.”
Uprooted, by Naomi Novik has been getting a lot of good reviews and I’m going to add my voice to the mix. At first, I wasn’t sure about this one. There is a lot of hype and I spent the first half of the book wondering if it was living up to it, which is my own readerly problem. I think it’s this way for me with a lot of hyped-up books. Lots of times I have a hard time paying attention because I’m wondering if I’ll like it as much as everybody else. Does that happen to you?
Eventually, the story got to me and by the end, I was ready to start all over and read it again. Uprooted is a great example of how great high fantasy can be in the hands of a skillful lady author. It’s got all the tropes you’re looking for: magic, epic battles, a deeply scary foe, a grumpy wizard and a talented heroine. However, while there’s lots of familiar high fantasy elements to Uprooted, and its familiarity is one of its charms, it’s not what sets this book apart from others I’ve read.
Uprooted is set in the kind of medieval-esque country you’d expect in a typical high fantasy novel. There’s a monarchy, villagers, magicians and a terrifying, deep, dark wood. Novik’s portrayal of the Wood is fantastic. It’s alive with horrors that kidnap passersby, fruit that poisons, and even brief contact with the Wood causes severe mental distress and corruption. And yet, people stay. The Wood creeps closer and closer to civilization, slowly but surely and people stay, with only the Dragon to protect them. The Dragon himself is a mixture of fantastic fantasy elements, he’s notoriously grumpy, he’s got a scary and mysterious reputation, he conscripts young women from the villages he protects to help him out in his creepy tower and he turns out to be sort of lovable and sexy. When it’s time for him to choose a new lady companion, our heroine Agnieszka, who is the novel’s narrator is taken, rather than her best friend Kasia, whom everyone is sure will be chosen.
All that is pretty typical. It’s Novik’s female characters that set Uprooted apart from many of its peers. One of the novel’s strengths is that Agnieszka is such a great narrator. Her voice is strong and reliable through all her adventures. Overall, Agnieszka is stubborn, somewhat difficult, and brave, which I admire. She’s the kind of brave that you see in strong women in your everyday life. You know the type: women who’ve experienced unexpected hardship and who’ve dug in their heels and persevered, even if it means making difficult choices that alienate them from the people they care for most. Agnieszka is reluctant to learn what the Dragon has to offer, but when push comes to shove, she does the right thing.
Learning magic separates her from her family and friends in a way that deeply wounds Agnieszka, but she doesn’t turn away from the way it isolates her because she has the capacity to help the people she loves. One of the things that I ended up liking most about this book is Agnieszka’s acceptance of the way people see her as she changes. She understands their fear of her and while it makes her sad, she goes on with developing her power. One of my biggest complaints about recent high fantasy is that often, female protagonists give up or “use up” their power in order to save the people they love (this often ends with the “reward” of fulfilling romance). I think this sets up a nasty standard for women in real life, the message seems to be “You can be powerful, but it has to serve others and true love can’t exist if you’re too powerful.” Uprooted has none of this and for that I’m really grateful.
Another thing I appreciated about Uprooted was Agnieszka’s relationship with Kasia. It’s complicated, like any true friendship, but the love between them is real. Though they have their rough moments, they draw strength from one another. Kasia becomes powerful in her own right and this doesn’t threaten their relationship at all, in fact, they collaborate to save their country (and maybe the world) from the Wood. I always appreciate awesome female friendships and too often it seems they’re few and far between in fantasy.
I think if you read lots of fantasy as a kid, if you enjoyed Tamora Pierce or Meredith Ann Pierce’s work, you’ll enjoy Uprooted. You’ll find the comforting fantastical elements you’ve always loved, but will find them told with a fresh perspective. Uprooted feels like a part of the high fantasy canon, paying homage to its forbearers, but bringing new kinds of adventures and ideas to the table that make it unique.
Allison Carr Waechter is mere days away from being done with teaching summer school and though she loves her students, she openly admits she’s looking forward to tackling the stack of books accumulating in the corner. Tweet at her if you want to add a recommendation to her vacation reading.