There have been few books which have pulled me into the story with such giddying force that it meant I stayed up until 1am, speedily reading with tired eyes, to try and finish it. And yet – somehow – Naomi Novik’s Uprooted manages to do just that. (If you’re a fan of her Temeraire series, then you should definitely give this book a read).
A high fantasy novel, the narrative follows the protagonist Agnieszka, a young woman in the village of Dvernik who is taken by “the Dragon” – a local wizard who takes a girl every ten years, as payment for protecting them from the magical, and extremely dangerous Wood – and their ensuing, ongoing battle against this ever-spreading malign entity.
“All those stories must have ended this same way, with someone tired going home from a field full of death, but no one ever sang this part.”
Right from the start, there is something enthralling about Novik’s work. The world building is rich and dramatic, blending rural folklore and the nightmarish monsters of the Wood seamlessly with magic of the Dragon’s high tower and religion of the large cities. The description of magic styles too is intriguing, and we see how different the Dragon is in comparison with Agnieszka or indeed with other wizards – like the “Falcon” – who appear later in the story.
Indeed, Novik’s characters are brilliantly realised. Agnieszka is a welcome, if unlikely heroine. She is clumsy, messy, stubborn, wilful, and full of heart; a character who you cheer on and empathise with as the narrative progresses. In comparison, the Dragon is irritable, but whip-smart – a perfectly realised grouchy, learned scholar with the face of a young man (even though he’s more than one-hundred years old) and a surprising, albeit begrudgingly bestowed, soft side.
“His name tasted of fire and wings, of curling smoke, of subtlety and strength, and the rasping whisper of scales.”
There is something joyously real and warm about the relationships depicted. Agnieszka’s friendship with Kasia is a wonderful example of the power of loyalty, platonic love, and friendship – and the character is a strong addition to the story in her own right, the epitome of the human, non-magical heart that Agnieszka and the Dragon fight for. Certainly, for all the character’s battle an inhuman, terrifying foe, at its heart Uprooted is packed with raw, human emotion about friendships, family, love, and loss. It is this that grounds the high fantasy tale, and – although I won’t spoil it – makes for a wonderful ending, gripped full of pathos.
However most of all, is Agnieszka’s relationship with the Dragon that I adored, and quietly grinned over as I read (I do love a good slow burn romance). They are two people bourne together through magic and the dangers that seep out of the Wood, their interactions gradually giving way to a burgeoning sexual and romantic tension that weaves itself through the story nicely.
“There was a song in this forest, too, but it was a savage song, whispering of madness and tearing and rage.”
When it comes to the Wood, the antagonist that creeps like a particularly poisonous set of vines beneath the surface of this story, there is something wonderfully sinister about how it affects, and infects, the lives of the people throughout the novel. Novik conjures up horrific images and fairy-tale like horror stories, and there are plenty of action-packed scenes and shocking reveals that keep you constantly alert. The Wood plants seeds and subtly infects everywhere, showing the reader and the character’s that danger and corruption is never really far away.
Uprooted is a darkly enchanting book, gripping and thrilling in equal measure. I promise that if you like your fairy tales dark and high fantasy rich, you won’t want to put it down.