Book Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Cropped Cover of Uprooted

Agnieszka, called Neshka by everyone she loves, is a small-town girl. She hasn’t much left her little village, and she never really wants to. Her family has been in the Valley for ages, and something just feels right about the place.

Except the Wood.

The Wood always lurks at the edge of the line of little towns that stretches down the river. It is malicious, always waiting to gobble up wandering people who get too close, as it swallowed the runaway Queen some years before. But it has been contained for as long as Neshka and her village can remember – about 100 years – by the presence of the Dragon.

“Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.”

Still, the Dragon is lord of the Valley in this pseudo-Polish feudal world, and the only tribute he demands from the villagers is a girl to serve him. Every ten years he selects a new girl, and at the end of the ten years, the girl returns, educated and worldly, and promptly leaves the Valley, armed with a sack of coin for her dowry. Families with girls born in a Dragon year learn not to love them too closely as children – it is too hard to lose them so utterly. Neshka, constantly stained, always finding trouble, knows she should be more concerned about the Dragon’s choosing ceremony, but finds it hard. After all, everyone in the Valley knows that Kasia will be chosen.

It is Kasia who is raised by her parents to serve a nobleman, Kasia who is beautiful, graceful and kind. And Kasia to whom Neshka clings most closely, in spite of their inevitable separation when it comes time for the Dragon to choose a girl.

So it comes as a shock that after a quick and derisive exchange with the Dragon, Neshka finds herself in the Tower where the Dragon lives, facing ten years of servitude that she has in no way prepared for. Utterly alone and very confused, Neshka nevertheless tries to make the best of it, even finding her way into the library.

Ready for a Beauty and the Beast retelling yet? I was, but Novik doesn’t play into our hands on this. In the Tower, the Dragon reveals he had to choose her – it was the law. In a world where the number of wizards a country has can make the difference in the ever-present threat of war, Neshka has the capacity to use magic, and the Dragon is required to teach her. Even if, to him, she is hopeless.

Despite his best efforts, the Dragon – or Sarkan, as is his real name – cannot make her keep clean, cannot prevent her from clumsily knocking over expensive potions, and cannot teach her to weave spells in the same measured way he does. She is useless to him and his battle against the Wood. Until she finds a spellbook of Baba Yaga’s hidden in his library.

Neshka finds her magic here, less structured and more organic than Sarkan’s. It’s good timing, as he is called away to fight a monster in a neighboring region. And the Wood uses his absence to attack. It’s been biding its time since its last incursion when it swallowed an entire town, and the madness and horror that it unleashes on Neshka’s village are only a starting point. Because creatures come out of the Wood, creatures made of the Wood itself, and they take Kasia. Neshka is determined to bring her back, despite the Dragon’s warnings, and her rescue efforts change everything. Because if a village girl could be brought back from the clutches of the Wood – what about the lost Queen, held there for all these years?

The answer is different than anyone expects.

Uprooted is the story of the Wood, the ancient evil that operates as the villain in the story, though perhaps it wasn’t always so. So too is it the story of growing up – at one point Neshka realizes her magic will make her nearly as immortal as the Dragon, meaning she will survive everyone she knows. And of course it is the story of magic, both the intuitive, grounded magic of Baba Yaga and Neshka, as well as the learned, eloquent magic that Sarkan wields. Most of all though, it is the story of how relationships shape and ground us. Sarkan and Neshka battle through a combative beginning to a place where they can work together (and maybe more). But Kasia’s kidnapping by the Wood is what sets Neshka’s story in motion, and their friendship is the beating heart of the book. It has a taste of Frozen (where the act of true love is one sister saving the other), but without the True Love’s First Kiss drama.

Uprooted pulls from a variety of folk and fairytale traditions to weave a tale that is as engrossing as it is epic. Anchored by Neshka’s narration to the Valley and to the two people Neshka cares about most – Kasia and Sarkan – the story feels almost homey despite the epic battles the characters face.

Pair with:

  • The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King – More wizarding fantasy set in a high tower, this book – the first written by Stephen King – follows the plight of a kingdom and its noble prince while an evil wizard plots major takeover. An intricate web of plot weaving, littered with clues that you realize afterward you should have put together, this battle between good and evil is just as epic – with the stakes just as high and the ending just as satisfyingly startling – as Agnieska and the Dragon’s in Uprooted

 

  • The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker – This title brings the setting a lot closer to home: 1930s New York. In the mess of Lower Manhattan during an influx of Eastern European and Syrian immigrants, a golem created by dark Kabbalistic magic and Arabian-Nights style genie find themselves in control of their own choices. There is a constant crisis between the golem’s impulse to serve and the jinni’s unwillingness to go back to being a slave. Inspired by folklore that’s a little more off the beaten path than Uprooted, The Golem and the Jinni feels like it could fit into the same magic world that spawned the Wood – just a few hundred years later.

 

  • Wicked by Gregory Maguire – This is the book that lots of people point to as the beginning of the fairy tale retelling renaissance. Wildly successful, and only a little bit an actual fairy tale, Maguire digs deep into the Wicked Witch of the West’s past to show us a complex character that has been smoothed over as the tale is retold. That thread of revealing what is hidden in the retelling of tales connects the two – after all, the Dragon doesn’t eat the young girls he takes, despite the rumors outside the Valley, and Elphaba is not actually wicked until the talk in Oz paints her that way. The hint of romance here, too, is a satisfying thread, though it is far more central to the plot than in Uprooted. Both are great reads to look at how small choices can bring the best of friends together – or tear them apart.