Review: Uprooted, by Naomi Novik

UprootedAgnieszka grew up in a quiet little village by the Wood, enjoying bright summer days with her childhood best friend, Kasia. Her home is a little different from the idyll it sounds like, however, for the Wood is corrupt and home to many dark things, things that sometimes come to take people away and return them twisted inside or out, and the girls grow up with the knowledge that Kasia will be lost to Nieshka when the wizard who guards their valley comes, as he does every ten years, to take the most remarkable young woman to serve a decade in his tower. Except he doesn’t take striking, beautiful Kasia at all — he takes Nieshka, and although at first she seems singularly ill-suited to the new life before her, soon she and the Dragon must teach each other how to work in harmony against the Wood and those who unwittingly serve it.

I love fairytales, but because they typically involve characters who are very archetypal, even the best of them can suffer from shallow characterisation. Uprooted is an object lesson in how to do it right. Even before the first reference to Baba Jaga lands, the root of the novel’s inspiration in Slavic folklore is richly evident, and the otherworldly feeling remains throughout, but never at the cost of the characters; hero and villain alike, they rise off the page, full of love and anger and foibles.

One of the best expressions of that love is in the friendship between Agnieszka and Kasia. It’s realistically flawed, exploring the ways in which each is jealous of the other even as they would do anything for one another, but it’s also so heartwarming. It’s just such a nuanced take on a devoted female friendship, on the role that a best friend plays in a young woman’s life and on how those friendships are impacted when growing up means one person leaving the place the two called home and the other staying behind.

I was initially concerned that the characterisation of Agnieszka herself might be shallow, especially with the deep array of personalities surrounding her, because there were a couple of the warning signs of Mary Sues such as clumsiness being presented as her main ‘flaw’. But in a refreshing twist, they turned out to have really good reasons for existing, and Nieshka went on not only to display much more genuinely flawed but compelling humanity, but also to do a great deal of growing up throughout the novel, despite being left little time to breathe.

In focusing first on the fantastic characterisation I may have made the novel sound slow-paced; it’s anything but. Once the initial groundwork has been laid, the story is densely plotted and excellently paced, darting from action to intrigue and back without losing its dark fairytale vibe. And that vibe is very dark at times, in exactly the way I like — sometimes the Wood corrupts people in obvious ways and sometimes in subtle ones, and it’s the ones who are charming and normal and utterly alien and wrong on the inside who provoke the visceral horror familiar to anyone who’s enjoyed nightmares of their loved ones smilingly turning to knife them. The author does a brilliant job with haunting little touches like the sweet little sigh of letting go a corrupted soldier gives before he turns to slit his comrade’s throat.

The only noticeably slow portion of the book for me was a section Nieshka has to spend at a court without the Dragon, but then the events were meant to be agonisingly slow for the character as well, and the buildup paid off. I think part of it was also being denied her partnership with him, which I didn’t expect to like as much as I did. He’s a crotchety bastard, and I don’t generally enjoy male characters who are jerks unless they get called on it, especially if they are love interests — but there are a number of reasons why it worked for me here. Firstly, one of the purposes of the slow court section is to show, through the lives of other wizards, the solid rationale he has for putting up walls; secondly, the process of going from being terrified by his legend, to humanising him, to giving as good as she gets, and finally to seeing how much of him is façade, reaching past it and shaping their magic together to be greater than the sum of their parts, is all a huge part of Agnieszka’s growth.

As for romance, it is present, but it is a grace note in an otherwise jam-packed book, and I think its primary purpose is to serve as a reflection of the magical partnership that is simultaneously developing, of two people shaving off their rough edges to fit together, to meld their vastly different styles into one double-edged blade.

I’ve read Novik’s Temeraire books before and I liked them, but I didn’t love them like this. I don’t know if it’s just the accumulation of writing experience or if the different style of the book speaks to me more, but I feel she’s a much stronger writer here, with her prose reading as positively lush at times. I don’t know whether or not I would like to see her return to this world, though. Part of me wants more, now, and the other part of me simply wants this book to stand perfect and untouched. This deserves a place alongside Stardust as one of my favourite modern fairytales.

5 stars

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