By Naomi Novik
Rating: 5+ Stars
Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life. Her people rely on the cold, ambitious wizard, known only as the Dragon, to keep the wood’s powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman must be handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as being lost to the wood. The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows – everyone knows – that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia – all the things Agnieszka isn’t – and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her. But no one can predict how or why the Dragon chooses a girl. And when he comes, it is not Kasia he will take with him…
I try to keep my reviews fairly spoiler free, but I would really struggle to do that here as the ending is one of my favourite things about this book. So from here on:
Beware: here there be spoilers……
This is going to be a long one because Uprooted is, quite simply, one of the best books that I’ve read this year and possibly one of my favourite books ever. In fact I love this book so much that I bought my own copy after originally borrowing it from the library. Considering the state of both my bookshelf (overflowing) and my bank balance (dwindling) that should speak for itself.
I’ve never read anything by Naomi Novik before (which I now understand to be a grave oversight on my part). This is largely due to the fact that, although I have long admired the premise and indeed the beautiful cover art of the Temeraire series, I’ve never been able to get hold of the elusive first book (Lancashire Libraries why do you not have it?!?!). So, I understandably jumped at the chance to read a stand-alone novel from her.
A lot of the literature I’ve seen sells Uprooted as something of a Beauty and the Beast retelling. Whilst I can kind of see where they’re going with this, I don’t completely agree. There’s certainly a degree of intertextuality between the two tales that I really enjoyed and that I definitely feel enhances the novel. But the main reason that I enjoyed it was that, whilst I was able to point at the places where B&B started to bleed through – the dark figure in the tower taking girls to serve him, the importance of the library, the heroine going away to solve a problem and then willingly coming back into danger – it’s all dealt with in a really intriguing way.
In fact Novik appears to use the original B&B story as more of a launch pad than anything – with the rest of the novel going into new and intriguing directions. I feel that its these deviations from the expected elements that make this story so spellbindingly beautiful that I want to read it again and again.
Agnieska is a something of a reluctant heroine. She has grown up with the knowledge that it is her friend Kasia who will be the one be taken; the Dragon choosing the golden girl with her many talents and her bravery seems to be a foregone conclusion. Instead, it is Agnieska who finds herself whisked off to the Dragon’s tower for ten years, but all she wants is to go back home.
As Nieska grows and changes throughout the book it is her longing to still be some part of her home that really moved me. She doesn’t want to run away and have grand adventures, she wants to be her own person, to help the valley, her family and all the villagers. The manner in which she achieves this is utterly brilliant and – as I’ve already mentioned – the book’s ending was perfect. She does have to compromise – she’s no longer the villager she thought she was, but she manages to find her own balance nevertheless.
One of the best things about this book was the enduring friendship between Agnieska and Kasia. It all felt incredibly real and believable and above all balanced. There was a sense that they evened each other out, that any envy they felt for each other was felt in the reverse by the other – the scene with the Summoning and Agnieska’s determination to rescue her friend was so touching. After Nieska was taken in Kasia’s place I was concerned that the two would be put into conflict with one another. But I needn’t have worried, Novik dealt with it brilliantly and the turn that she takes the story on instead is wonderful. I loved that it really did feel like Kasia’s story as well and that she still go to be the hero in a different way.
The world building is also wonderful, incredibly well thought through and very original. There is a very definite sense of place without ever trying to attribute it to an existing country. The Eastern European elements and the way that the stories of the region are dealt with, really serve to enrich the tale. Novik somehow manages to do this without it ever appearing to be too much of an information overload or ever proving distracting from the overall narrative. As I said before – balanced.
The concept that the whole village is so sure that Kasia will be taken is completely credible and I love that Novik addresses the fact that Kasia has a very different life because of this. The fact that families ‘love dragon-born girls differently’ is very evident and understandable. I really loved the supporting cast of the valley’s inhabitants and thought that they really stood on their own two feet rather than just being set dressing. You felt for them as well as Nieska/Kasia and their families and the fact that they mattered really made me buy into the fact that the wood needed to be defeated for good.
The only thing – a very, very slight thing that may be my own fault for reading it so fast – is that the concept of the Wood Queen actually being a creature never even seemed to occur to me and so came a little out of nowhere. I like elements in books that surprise me and I really loved the idea of the wood just being a different race that time and humanity had overtaken. However, the transition from thinking of the wood as one creature – a sort of primal force – to being a race that had been corrupted through the grief and rage of one of their kind was initially a little hard to get my head around.
Finally, I have to say that I really hope this is a stand-alone novel – at least in terms of focusing on Agnieska’s character. I’d love to see some more from Novik in this universe, perhaps following Kasia’s adventures, because it’s an utterly fascinating world that she’s writing about. But I feel that this stands so well on its own – an absolutely perfect book – that I’m unsure how I would feel about a sequel. I’d rather carry on thinking of Agnieska wandering through her valley – mingling both with the village people and the creatures of the wood – and occasionally dragging Sarkan kicking and screaming into adventures that he wants to go on anyway but would never admit to.
As to the Temeraire series I finally tracked a copy of the first book down at Lancaster Waterstones and I got my copy of the second book with my own copy of Uprooted from Amazon. So my bookcase is soon to be rectified from its Novik-less state!