Sometimes, special books come from unexpected places. I had read the first two Temeraire books by Naomi Novik and, while liking the first one, didn’t like them enough to continue the series. There was something missing that I couldn’t put my finger on, so I pretty much dismissed the author as “just not my cup of tea”. Then I won an ARC (which turned out to be a beautiful finished hardcover – THANK YOU, Macmillan! Really, it’s beautiful.) of this fairytale-esque new novel and it took exactly one sentence for me to fall in love.
Published by: Macmillan, 2015
Hardcover: 437 pages
My rating: 9/10
First sentence: Our dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.
Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.
Her people rely on the cold, ambitious wizard, known only as the Dragon, to keep the wood’s powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman must be handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as being lost to the wood.
The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows – everyone knows – that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia – all the things Agnieszka isn’t – and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.
But no one can predict how or why the Dragon chooses a girl. And when he comes, it is not Kasia he will take with him.
This has to be one of the best opening sentences I’ve read in a long, long time and Uprooted is my favorite book of the year so far. The first chapter does exactly what a good beginning should do. It establishes a world, it introduces the main character, and it sets its hooks firmly into your mind and makes it impossible to stop reading.
Every ten years, the local wizard, called the Dragon, chooses a girl from Agnieszka’s valley and takes her away to his castle. Nobody really knows what he does with them, although they all say he never laid a finger on them. Agnieszka is the right age to be chosen but she isn’t worried. The entire valley knows that her best friend Kasia – beautiful, talented, brave – is the most likely choice. But of course things don’t go as expected and Agnieszka is chosen instead of her childhood friend.
The first few chapters are a bit misleading as to where the story will go. The mood of the novel screams Fairy Tale right from the start, so I thought I’d get a sort of Beauty and the Beast retelling. But while Agnieszka’s first months in the tower are spent cleaning, cooking, and bickering with the Dragon, her presence seems to irritate him more than excite him. She is clumsy, constantly gets her clothes dirty, and stubborn. It’s a match made in heaven. Despite their dislike for each other, Agnieszka slowly learns some magic from the wizard, and we readers learn what his “job” is in the first place (more on that later).
One aspect that made this book so great is Agnieszka’s development as well as her relationship with the Dragon. I understand some people’s criticism of the romantic sub-plot, but it pushed so many of my buttons that I couldn’t help but adore it. These two spend most of the novel bickering, arguing, and generally disagreeing – but it is their differences that make them so compatible. While the Dragon works every spell meticulously and by the book, Agnieszka takes a more intuitive approach and shows amazing talent. But it is only when they work together that their greatness can shine. In fact, her actions are what drives the plot, unlike so many reactive fairy tale heroines.
So Agnieszka is a wonderful protagonist and I loved her cleverness and fierce loyalty, the real main character of Uprooted is the Wood. Its menacing presence can be felt on every page, and the magician’s job becomes much more interesting once you know just how evil that Wood really is. Sometimes, it takes people, sometimes it gives them back, but they are never the same. Other times, it kills anything in its path, it eats entire villages, it ruins people’s lives with disease or madness. As an antagonist, this was one of the more original and disturbing ones, and I completely loved how the Wood’s influence was shown. The author made sure that, once the characters venture into the Wood, her readers are properly scared of what they’ll find there.
Naomi Novik manages to pack an impressive amount of plot into the 400 pages of this book. Some reviewers mentioned that a trilogy would have been more suitable, but I like Uprooted just the way it is. It builds its world slowly, then relies on Agnieszka’s actions to be the catalyst for change. Her friendship with Kasia is what sets in motion the actions that will lead to a thrilling climax. I loved how front and center this friendship between women was in the novel, but it is also the one part that I had issues with. The fact that Kasia and Agnieszka are friends is explained in the very first chapter, and while we’re told that they’ve spent their entire childhood together and are very close, there wasn’t any time to show us this friendship before Agnieszka gets taken by the Dragon.
But the author makes up for that minor flaw by making Kasia in important character throughout the novel. You’d expect her to be nothing but a memory in Agnieszka’s mind, to maybe be mentioned once or twice, but you wouldn’t expect her to turn into a badass heroine in her own right. Kasia’s development was as gripping as Agnieszka’s and I loved seeing them work together as a team.
The Dragon… oh, the Dragon! This may say more about me than it does about the book, but I adore grumpy guys as romantic heroes. The Dragon was a Mr. Rochester of sorts, albeit a bit more cold-hearted and distant. As I said, Agnieszka spends most of her time disagreeing with him, and even when he should be proud of her or magical abilities, all she gets are off-hand remarks that sound more like criticism than praise. So the sexual tension is pre-programmed and I will go on record and say that the romantic scenes were butterfly-inducing, sexy, and beautifully written. I wouldn’t have minded more of that…
Uprooted is a stand-out novel that can be enjoyed on many levels. It’s a fairy tale (Baba Yaga! Evil Woods! Magic!), it’s a story about place and belonging, about friendship and bravery, about politics and talent. Much like The Goblin Emperor last year, this book stole my heart and I already look forward to reading it again.
MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection