Monday, January 11, 2016

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Reviewed by Ambrea

Agnieszka has spent her entire life exploring the valley where she lives.  She loves her home—the forests, the river that cuts through the valley, like a ribbon of silver, the meadows—but she, like her neighbors, has learned to fear the corrupted Wood.  It stands at the border of the valley, growing each year, swallowing each village and town it encounters, poisoning crops and stealing villagers to turn them into something monstrous.

The Wood has cast a shadow over her entire life.  With only the Dragon—a powerful wizard appointed by the king of Polnya—for protection, Agnieszka and her village are subject to his whims.  The Dragon requires a servant, a young woman who will serve him for ten years before returning home; however, everyone (including Agnieszka) knows it is practically a death sentence, because no one returns from the Dragon’s tower unchanged.

Agnieszka knows Kasia, her nearest and dearest friend, will be chosen at the next selection.  Like she knows the Dragon will never look twice at her.  But what Agnieszka doesn’t know is that she has a thread of magic running through her, a thread of unexpected power that will change the entire course of her life.

Uprooted is a truly intriguing piece of fantasy.  It has all the elements of a traditional fantasy—a menagerie of magical creatures, a malevolent forest, a grumpy wizard—but it feels different from the usual.  Sure, I can see where Tolkien, among others, might play a part in Novik’s novel and I can pinpoint familiar myths that have influenced many fantasy writers; however, Naomi Novik pulls from unexpected resources, dipping into multiple mythological pools.  Most notably, she incorporates pieces from Slavic folklore, such as Baba Yaga.

For this reason, Novik’s novel has a different flavor to it than most fantasy I’ve read.  It’s a complex amalgamation of political and social intrigue, magic, myth and folklore and, more importantly for young Agnieszka, coming-of-age themes, but Novik manages to keep her story fresh and interesting.  I’m unfamiliar with much of the background, with the intricate history and folklore of Agnieszka’s native Polnya, so I found it particularly invigorating.

I also liked Agnieszka.  She’s clumsy and inexperienced, but she’s highly intelligent and she’s incredibly candid about her experiences.  As she shares her fears, her hopes and dreams and desires, I had the opportunity to see her characters in many different ways—and I have the opportunity to see how she changes, how her circumstances mold her and make her into a new person.  She’s a fantastic narrator.

I was especially taken with her descriptions of magic.  Agnieszka, who has spent her entire childhood roaming the great outdoors, climbing trees and running through the woods in bare feet, has an earthy quality to her character that reflects in her descriptions of the world and, most importantly, her magic.  She engages tactile sensations and offers descriptions that often evoke images of soil, summer, and green, growing things—new life.

I loved the way Agnieszka saw the world.

Additionally, I was pleased with Novik’s character development.  Although the Dragon—Sarkan—remained fairly unchanged (he was very stalwart in his refusal to bend), I liked how Agnieszka developed.  She goes from a shy, fearful young woman to a powerful, self-reliant young witch.  I enjoyed seeing her mature, develop, grow as a person and as a magical practitioner.

However, I have one complaint about Uprooted:  it’s too long.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a lengthy story, but Novik’s novel just seemed to keep going past an acceptable conclusion.  So many secrets unfolded, so many bad things kept happening, so many narrow escapes occurred that I quickly lost count of the many dangers and threats to Agnieszka’s life.  It makes the last few chapters feel especially rushed, having too many adventures and too many new discoveries crammed into a very small portion of the book.

Considering all the material Novik had to work with, Uprooted could have used a bid of subdividing—preferably into a trilogy.

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