Hardcover, 438 pages
Published May 19th 2015 by Del Rey
Many in the fantasy community likely know Naomi Novik for her Temeraire series, a wonderful ‘if-dragons-were-like-horses’ kind of adventure that makes up the bulk of her published works. However, Uprooted hit with a splash last year, and amid nearly universally positive reviews, it made it into the finals of this year’s Hugo Award for Best Novel, where it meets some stiff competition in The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin (which I adored), as well as juggernaut big-name authors Neil Stephenson and Jim Butcher, and past champion and three-time finalist, Ann Leckie.
And, if you put a gun to my head right now and made me choose a winner, Uprooted would get my vote hands down. It’s that good.
The story centers around Agnieszka, a young woman living in a quiet village; a village that is, however, bordering The Wood. They live in somewhat constant fear of the evil of the wood, of being corrupted or taken, of the terrible things living within the forest. Their solace lies in The Dragon, a powerful wizard who helps keep the deviltry of the forest at bay; be it magic, creatures, or corruption. The Dragon’s protection comes at a price – every ten years, he comes to the village and takes one girl, generally the most beautiful and outwardly talented, and holds them in his fortress for 10 years. Much mystery surrounds what goes on in the Dragon’s tower, but they all know that the girls who leave rarely will speak about their time there, generally move away from the area, and many believe that the Dragon is an evil force who forces himself upon the girls he takes.
None of this is a big concern for Agnieszka, as she is a clumsy, awkward youth with a penchant for getting dirty and getting into trouble. Kasia is the perfect one – beautiful, talented, level-headed, and dear to Agnieszka. Everyone knows Kasia will be the one the Dragon takes, and everyone has prepared themselves for it. However, when he comes to the village, it’s not Kasia he takes – it’s Agnieszka. It does not take long for our protagonist to discover the true purpose of the Dragon taking the girls, or even to discover why the girls leave his indentured servitude changed, and altered.
However, no matter how different from her expectations and fears the exile is for Agnieszka, nothing can really prepare her for what she’ll learn, what she’ll become, and what she’ll have to do in order to save her best friend, her village, and the Queen of the land.
Uprooted is, in a word, brilliant. The writing is superb – no wasted space, but no shortage of emotion, of imagination, of drama. The dialogue between the characters was so vivid, visceral, and impactful. Each character had a very unique and distinct voice, mannerisms, patterns, and Novik was superb in her use of all of these factors, adding characteristics at the right time, not overusing anything (there’s no braid-tugging or dress-straightening here). At almost any time, you could read a sentence from any of the main characters, and be able to say who it likely was without any other clues, which is a great talent.
The worldbuilding, while contained to a small area, is subtly magnificent. The Wood is so beautifully imagined, something right out of dark fairy tales and nightmares. The magic system is simple in it’s use, broad in it’s powers, but not overpowered or underpowered. The royal family and the politics involved are introduced very slowly, and the drama and characters found within the big city and the castle were very well done, unpredictable, and very ‘real’ feeling, acting in ways that make sense within the story, and within human emotions.
The action was frantic at times, but never felt out of control, or rushed. Battles small and large felt equally impactful, and there were some very stressful moments, even though I felt relatively safe for the characters. But the fact I cared enough about them to become nervous for their wellbeing is a great sign, as I don’t generally get all that invested into characters, even ones I love. But Uprooted kept me nervous, kept me engaged, and made sure that it tugged on every heartstring it could in the process.
The only downsides I can think of are a bit of jumpy plot around the ending, as well as some slightly awkward sex scenery – which was better than most, mind you, but I kind of feel like if those scenes were written by a man, people would roll their eyes a bit at them. Fair or not. However, otherwise, I was in awe the entire story, I was glued to it, and I devoured it in just a couple days while out camping. It was a great atmospheric story to be going through while alone in the forest, and I couldn’t recommend a better reading place for a book like this – it honestly added quite a bit to the experience.
For me, Uprooted fired on all cylinders, and absolutely lived up to the reviews, award nominations, and acclaim it’s been getting. I think it’s a genre-defying novel, the type I would heartily recommend both to fantasy readers, as well as those who aren’t too into traditional fantasy, and definitely to my female friends who aren’t big on the genre. It’s a great read all around, and I am incredibly happy to have read it.