Uprooted by Naomi Novak
On the back of my copy of Naomi Novak’s Uprooted, author Maggie Stiefvater says that it “feels as if it has always existed and has been waiting patiently for me to return to it.” I couldn’t think of a better way to describe this enchanting novel about fairy tale magic. Uprooted is a spellbinding novel, and even on the first read, it feels like a familiar story that you’re finally coming home to.
The plot is slightly difficult to describe, but the tone is perhaps summed up by the first line: “our dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.”Agnieszka’s valley is ruled by the Dragon, a mysterious sorcerer who lives in his tower and emerges once every ten years to choose a girl to work for him. The girls come back changed — seemingly fine, but unable to return to live in the valley for long — and the villagers decide it’s a small price to pay for the Dragon’s protection against the evil Wood that lurks nearby. Everyone in the valley knows that Agnieszka’s best friend, Kasia, is going to be the girl chosen this year. But when the untidy, disorganized Agnieszka show a hint of magical power, she is chosen instead.
Uprooted invokes a lot of dark fairy tale tropes — the evil Wood, enchantment in food and water, the maiden whisked away to the tower — with a writing style that gentle echoes the feel of a fairy tale while adding more character and emotion and depth to the style. It’s incredibly readable, and I found myself tearing through the pages. I couldn’t read it fast enough.
Agnieszka is an interesting character, but the real protagonist is the valley, with the Wood as its antagonist. The Wood is a living, breathing evil entity, waging war against the kingdom, desperate to grow and corrupt until nothing good is left. In a sense, Agnieszka is an extension of the valley, the force fighting against the Wood, and her magic is deeply rooted in her home and in the natural world around her. She does have a dose of “special snowflakeness,” in that her magic is uniquely powerful and works differently from absolutely everyone else’s. This is explained somewhat by her connection to the valley and a potential link to an old mythical witch called Jaga, but it’s not really explored in depth, which might frustrate some people. She’s just Special, because she’s the Valley, and we have to accept that.
The friendship between Agnieszka and Kasia drives a lot of the plot, and is one of the book’s greatest strengths, outside its world building. Both Agnieszka and Kasia are fully realized people, and there is so much nuance in the loving relationship between them. Kasia has spent her life knowing she’s going to be chosen by the Dragon, and Agnieszka has spent her life knowing she’s going to lose her best friend. Agnieszka’s selection allows the novel to explore the resentment that lingers under the surface of these assumptions, how Kasia knows Agnieszka was always glad it would be her best friend and not herself, how Agnieszka feels both resentment and relief at not being the Special One. The two characters’ love for one another plays a huge role in the story, and that love is giving a compelling amount of depth and shade.
The Dragon, meanwhile, is a familiar trope. Whether that’s fun or tired will depend on the reader, I think. He’s the grumpy, rude, distant sorcerer whose heart will eventually soften toward Agnieszka, but not enough to actually be nice to her. He’s grouchy and closed off, he never explains himself, and his way is always the right way. And lets not forget the kidnap thing, which he never even considers could be upsetting for the girls until Agnieszka points it out to him. The romance between the Dragon and Agnieszka feels as inevitable as it is unnecessary, and although its rooted in magic in an interesting way, it’s exasperating that a novel that’s so inventive in other ways trips into that familiar trap of “older guy who is a jerk mentor and young girl who falls for him even though he’s never ever nice to her.” SPOILERS (highlight to read): At the end of the novel, Agnieszka seems to step away from the Dragon, going to live in the Woods to help end its corruption, and I was so delighted by this. She had the cliche romance with the Dragon, but in the end, he wasn’t going to change and become any less closed off, and she had her own story and her own life to live. Except, of course, that’s not the ending at all. He returns on the last page, she takes his hand, and that is that. Disappointing, I thought, when it could have been so much more original.
The structure of the novel also feels slightly off. The plot goes off in a lot of different directions, and although you can look back at it and see how Agnieszka’s story led her from A to B, it seems to take a lot of detours that don’t feel cohesive to the story. Agnieszka is trying to befriend people at court! Agnieszka is modifying a prince’s memory, which is mentioned as dangerous multiple times but never really comes into play again! The novel also shrugs off its fairy-tale feel for a good chunk of the story, turning to a more battle and human focussed plot, which I found quite confusing. Eventually, this all becomes clear, but I had a lot of questions in the middle there, and that uncertainty didn’t seem to be deliberate. But when Uprooted focusses on the magic of the Wood, it is phenomenal. Gripping and nuanced, original and yet familiar.
Uprooted certainly isn’t a perfect novel, but it is a very good novel, and definitely worth a read. I’m not sure if it’ll be top of my Hugo ballot, but it’s definitely worthy of consideration.