I’m going to start off this review by doing everyone a solid: the name of the main character of Naomi Novik’s fantasy novel Uprooted is pronounced ag-NYESH-kah. You are welcome.
Uprooted pits Agnieszka and her mentor The Dragon against the malevolent and powerful supernatural forces of the Wood which lie at the edge of her valley. It is a fantasy novel that draws from classic fairy tales almost as much as it subverts them. Both the novel's plot and characters are developed through setting up expectations only for the reader to discover they’ve been misdirected. This adds a nuance of depth to both. It even extends to the magic within the novel as Agnieszka is constantly told by the Dragon and other witches/warlocks that magic is done only a certain way or that there is no way to do something with magic. And yet, Agnieszka defies these stringent rules of magic time and again, just as the novel defies the very fairy tale tropes it draws on for its story. Agnieszka is the most prominent example of these subversions which occur throughout the text. At the beginning of the novel when the Dragon comes to take a girl from the valley, something he does every ten years when he releases the previous one, it is everyone’s expectation that he will take Agnieszka’s best friend Kasia. Instead, he chooses her, the girl who is not the classic fairy tale trope of the most beautiful, the most charming, the bravest, or any of the typical qualities found in fairy tale heroines. She is the one taken to the Dragon’s Tower to presumably fulfill the Rapunzel motif of being locked away. She thinks she is going to be just like all the other girls the Dragon has taken but she quickly realizes that the Dragon is teaching her magic and “He hadn’t done this to any of the other women at all” (Novik 37). Agnieszka then proceeds to undermine all the supposed rules of magic that the Dragon, and later other warlocks like The Falcon and witches like The Sword, cling to as governing the world they live in. Agnieszka brings the magic back into magic, tearing it away from a cold hard science of action and reaction. Let’s just say Hermione would have hated Agnieszka’s gift for magic just as the Dragon gets frustrated when he can’t figure out how Agnieszka manages to perform the spells she does the way she does. Agnieszka then proceeds to perform more and more actions that defy the rules and expectations set out by the novel, much to the frustration of other magic users. This is what makes her character interesting, despite having a rather bland personality (the best of her personality can be seen when she stands up to the Dragon). She adds wonderment to the novel, such as the moment when her and the Dragon create a rose illusion. She describes the moment as “Flowers […] blooming everywhere: flowers I had never seen, strange blooms dangling and others with sharp points, brilliantly colored, and the room was thick with their fragrance” (95). Aside from her we see the calculated magic of the Dragon, which is not in itself wonderful, and the hideous corrupting magic of the Wood. Her magic stands out unique in the story as acts upon the world in interesting and unexpected ways. It is no surprise that she is the character that uproots the foundation of her magical world at a time when it is most needed, as the Wood’s malevolent progress begins to speed up.
Prince Marek is another example of a fairy tale trope that is subverted within the novel. The classic handsome prince character barely makes it through a chapter without revealing his true nature. He comes to Agnieszka’s room to sleep with her and she says “I’d probably have been willing myself, if he’d asked me outright and given me enough time to get over my surprise and answer him: I struggled more by reflex than because I wanted to reject him. But he did overcome me. Then I began to be really afraid” (43). Rather than a charming and heroic prince, Marek reveals himself to be arrogant and an attempted rapist too sure of his status in the world to give any thought to Agnieszka’s feelings or consent. Later in the novel, Agnieszka and the Dragon accompany Prince Marek and his knights on a quest, the horror of which is counter to everything Agnieszka believed about war and noble knights as she’d heard them in stories and songs. Even the Wood manages to play with your expectations as a reader. Even though you think you understand the nature or the form of the evil within the Wood it manages to surprise again and again as the story progresses. And unlike its evil counterparts in classic fairy tales, there is more to the Wood than simply evil doing what evil does. Because of this the Wood is an excellent villainous force. Its corruption takes on a number of frightening and horrific forms, and the Wood’s cleverness catches up to you in unexpected ways.
Uprooted feels like a trilogy in one novel. There is so much content that you could easily imagine Naomi Novik writing three books that cover everything that transpires in Agnieszka’s battle with the Wood. But instead Naomi Novik keeps the story contained to a single novel, much to the benefit of its story and characters. The novel never feels like it is holding back and the scope of its story from beginning to end feels both diverse and satisfying. The arc of each character never feels like it is left hanging for dramatic effect, and to see each progression come to its conclusion lends a weight to each event that transpires. Considering Naomi Novik is probably best known for her Her Majesty’s Dragon series, and with the abundance of trilogies out there leaving readers waiting between novels, it is refreshing to have a one-off story that manages to give the same experience of a grand tale as a trilogy might accomplish.
Uprooted is enjoyable, succinct, and at times light with its prose. It isn’t trying to burden you with an abundance of flowery language or complicated fantasy ideas. This lightness, reminiscent of the simplicity of fairy tales, does not diminish the scope of the content in any way but instead makes it more approachable in a way that some fantasy fails to be. It’s a fun read, that picks up momentum and takes itself to places in ways you wouldn’t expect from the outset. The comfort of fairy tales will be quickly left behind because, despite its appearances, this is not the tale of a girl locked in a tower.
Novik, Naomi. Uprooted. United States: Del Rey Books. 2015. Print.