Naomi Novik is the New York Times bestselling author of the Temeraire series. Uprooted is a standalone single novel first published in 2015 and has since won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 2016. a Hugo Nomination for Best Novel in 2016, and a GoodReads Choice Award Nomination for Young Adult Fantasy and Science Fiction in 2015. It’s not a book you can easily glance over with these accolades. Del Ray | March, 2016 | Paperback | 438 pp
Agnieszka is a young woman who was born in the wrong year. She and her best friend Kasia are dragon-born. It means that when the time comes, the Dragon who protects their village from the corrupted Wood nearby will come to choose one girl as he does every ten years. It’s a sort of sacrifice that the town agrees to make in order to stay alive. But this Dragon isn’t the fire-breathing sort and the girl will not be thrown into his jaws. This Dragon is a sorcerer, and he takes a girl every ten years for some purpose that remains a mystery to the townsfolk. So you can imagine how terrifying it would be to the dragon-born girls. The women he takes come back but are so changed, they never stick around the village. No one knows what happened to them while they were locked away in his tower.
The choosing begins right away and everyone knows that the Dragon will take beautiful, talented, sweet Kasia – and Agnieszka is distraught about it but is determined to stay strong for her friend. Of course, the Dragon ends up choosing Agnieszka (otherwise, we wouldn’t have much of a story) and she is whisked away in a puff of magic without so much as a second to look back upon her parents and wish them farewell.
At first, she is terrified. Will he try to harm her? Will he force himself upon her? Much to her surprise, he does none of this. Aside from having her cook his meals, he begins to teach her magic. It doesn’t go well. Agnieszka has always been clumsy and she stumbles over the words just as she stumbles over her own two feet. And using magic, she learns, drains her energy terribly. The Dragon continues to mock her and yell at her, but although his rage doesn’t subside – her fear does. It’s slow in coming, but she realizes her purpose.
After the Dragon is called away to the king’s palace on an emergency, her small village lights the beacons to signal for the Dragon’s help. Although she was told not to leave the tower, she couldn’t very well sit around and let her kinfolk die. It is a trap and the ever-encroaching and evil Wood planned for the Dragon to be away. Although Agnieszka knows little in the ways of magic, the corrupted power of the Wood underestimates her, just as the Dragon has done. When she saves the life of the Dragon and her best friend Kasia, he begins to sense her innate skill and power. And he’s going to need all the help he can get because the Wood is planning a final assault on mankind.
I loved the descriptions of magic that come from Agnieszka. While the Dragon is rigid and set in his spells, incantations, and potions – Agnieszka just knows the magic. It isn’t something she knows off the top of her head. Instead, she feels which way to go with her senses. She lets her instincts guide her magic. Agnieszka and the Dragon are polar opposites in spell casting. When the Dragon cannot understand how she could have possibly done the impossible, she finds it just as impossible to explain each and every time. This infuriates him even more.
“But none of that matters at all.” His head raised to stare balefully at me, but I said, incoherent yet convinced, “It’s just – a way to go. There isn’t only one way to go.” I waved at his notes. “You’re trying to find a road where there isn’t one. It’s like – it’s gleaning in the woods,” I said abruptly. “You have to pick your way through the thickets and the trees, and it’s different every time.”
The character of the Dragon stays true throughout the entirety of the book. He never breaks character to betray the integrity of the story. He is brash, unapologetic, quick-tempered, rude, insensitive, and an infuriating know-it-all. He doesn’t suddenly warm to Agnieszka’s character and pledge his undying love. They have moments, but nothing so predictable. His character stays on course till the end. He is what he is – a hot-headed, stubborn sorcerer who doesn’t particularly like to be up showed nor dwell in the presence of simple peasants.
Agnieszka experiences character growth by dropping the fear while she learns to stand up and be heard. She also doesn’t betray herself or her roots. Unlike the other dragon girls who leave the village to become courtesans or enter college, Agnieszka would rather wear peasant clothes even while at the palace – even when she knows simple spells to drape her body in luxurious finery that would make a princess green with envy.
Our nemesis is the Wood, the large swath of forest that is always creeping closer. Corruption leaks out from time to time and sickens villagers. Most can never be saved and must be killed lest they turn on their own families. Sometimes, creatures such as walking trees (Walkers) snatch people away to place them into giant heart-trees. And every so often, it swallows a town whole before anyone realizes. The Dragon lives in a tower on the far edge of the wood, always working to keep the Wood at bay. Agnieszka and the Dragon soon realize that the Wood is plotting with a cleverness never assumed, and its plan is total takeover.
The evil corruption itself is really terrifying in concept. This is no walk in the park – Uprooted is dark fantasy with gore, mass carnage, and descriptions of events that will give you nightmares. At times, there are monsters you can’t see and that can be the scariest type of “baddie”. The corruption can fester unknown inside someone, and make them do horrible things.
“Somewhere behind me, one of the men sighed deeply – a relieved noise, as though he were setting down a heavy weight. It was loud in the Wood’s silence. I looked around. His scarf had sagged down from his face: it was the friendly young soldier with the broken nose who’d led my horse to water. He reached out with a knife drawn, sharp and bright silver, and he caught the head of the man riding in front of him and cut his throat in one deep red gash from side to side.”
It wasn’t even six months after publication before there was a giant bidding war on the movie rights. I’m telling you, it’s THAT good. Warner Bros. won and Ellen DeGeneres is slated to produce the movie.
Undeniably my favorite read this year, Uprooted is the story of a young maiden who is trapped in a tower by a dragon with a hint of Beauty and the Beast. But this girl doesn’t need saving and the Dragon doesn’t need to be slayed. The two opposites need to work together to beat the real enemy of the world.
by Naomi Novik