The Short Version: Every ten years, a wizard known as the Dragon chooses a girl of 17 to come live as his servant. This year, all expect it to be the beautiful Kasia – but it is the messy Agnieszka who is chosen instead. When the Dragon reveals to her that she, too, is a magic user, she must overcome her doubts and help the Dragon defend their land against the evil Wood on their border…
The Review: What an unexpected delight this novel was. Naomi Novik is best known for her Temeraire series, which depicts a Napoleonic Wars fought with dragons, and I read the first six novels in that sequence before letting it fall by the wayside. I loved Novik’s ability to create complex characters, her general authorial joy, and her unique twist on the fantasy genre – even as I thought the overall quality slipped in those middle novels of the Temeraire sequence. The prospect of a standalone novel seemed the perfect return to her work and a chance to see her stretch out, beyond the confines of the series she was trekking through.
Mostly, I’m just embarrassed that I’ve let this book sit on my shelf for nearly a year; I would’ve found the pleasure of the novel so much sooner had I just read it when I picked it up originally. What seems to begin as a “Beauty and the Beast” riff told from the point-of-view of the scrappy best friend is almost immediately upended when the scrappy best friend gets taken by the beastly-seeming man in the tower – except he’s not really a dragon (which the opening lines of the novel point out, wonderfully) and she’s more than just the scrappy friend. Novik indulges in a little meet-cute about it all but now she’s subverted expectations and turned this into a teacher-student novel about magic. This would, for many authors, be where the story sits… but instead, Novik continues to dig deeper, adding a layer of political machinery as well as using the entire novel’s arc to do some background world-building while still never losing sight of the characters and their complex internal struggles. The most impressive thing about the book, in fact, is how rich and vivid the world feels at the end of reading it – Novik does more in about 450 pages than most authors accomplish in entire trilogies.
That’s not to say that I don’t still have questions. For example, the development of Agnieszka’s magic and the way it overthrows the traditional magical structures that appear to have been in place for at least a century is interesting but never fully explained beyond some mystical mumbo-jumbo about the river / the valley as inspiring its own wilder, woolier form of magic than that impressed upon those who are taught the craft at a younger age – and I wanted to see this dichotomy explored further. It’s such compelling reading and such a lovely way to depict magic, when Agnieszka and the Dragon cast together and their magic begins to intertwine and play off of one another like musicians jamming, that I wanted to know more about how these two forms pair and play. Similarly, I wondered about the larger world – we were introduced to some of the political machinations (and it became clear, about halfway through the novel, that this was, if not our world, some world very similar to ours and that the country featured here was a Poland analogue) but Novik gave us just enough to leave us wanting more.
But to demand answers is to neglect the perfection of the object before us; sometimes a standalone can just be a standalone. The Wood is a fascinating evil, all the more mysterious for how seemingly anonymous it is, and the creatures that inhabit it immediately join the annals of tremendously horrible imaginings, especially the walkers and the mantis-things. The insidious creeping magic that it spreads into the world, too, does that great double duty of being literally evil while also providing some great folktale symbolism about the way minds can be poisoned without anyone ever noticing a change. Add in some violent fights and harrowing escapes, not to mention a Heart of Darkness-esque journey (several, actually), and you’ve got a well-paced novel that delivers on everything it sets out to do while keeping the reader entertained from the very first to very last words.
Rating: 5 out of 5. Uprooted might not have the same lasting power in the fantasy canon as the Temeraire series but it shows that Naomi Novik is no one-trick-pony. This is a tremendously satisfying fantasy novel, a page-turner in the most wonderful sense of the term. Even through the first few chapters, it’s hard to say that anybody could correctly predict exactly where the novel would end up going – and that, too, is a pleasure. I’m a little embarrassed to say that I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this novel, but I know now that I won’t be surprised again: Novik is here to stay & Temeraire wasn’t just a fluke. I can’t wait to see where she goes next.