In my opinion Naomi Novik’s novel, Uprooted, is a modern classic. I haven’t read her other books, which were sold to me as “naval warfare with dragons”, as I like dragons but naval warfare is not my thing. What I do like is fairytales.
The current trend is to retell old classics, but with a twist in the tale. These range from cyborgs in Marissa Meyer’s retelling of the eponymous rags to riches fairytale in Cinder, to offerings such as Politically Correct Bedtime Stories by James Finn Garner. However, it takes some real talent to craft a brand new fairytale, one that only gives a brief nod to the well-known stories and instead carries a charm all of its own. Neil Gaiman’s Stardust is a prime example, and now Uprooted can be added to this list as well.
I was initially drawn to this by the synopsis. But that only gives away the first few chapters; it sheds no light on how the rest of the novel pans out. Agnieszka is a young girl who expects her best friend, Kasia, to be taken by the Dragon, a powerful magician who lives in a nearby tower. The Dragon works ceaselessly to hold back the corruption of the living, sentient Wood which borders Agnieszka’s village. Only it turns out that Agnieszka is taken instead; Sarkan (the Dragon) has seen power in her and he knows he must teach her to harness and control that power before the Wood seeks to corrupt her untapped power for its own malevolent uses. That’s pretty much all the synopsis gives away, making it impossible to write a review without any spoilers at all, but I’ll do my best to keep them minimal.
Kasia is beautiful, graceful and educated in etiquette; Agnieszka is plain, clumsy and with no training in the ways of a lord’s serving girl. At first, her clumsiness, mistakes and fear really irritated me, but Novik quickly turned that around by making Agnieszka’s mistakes and lack of education the crucial key to unlocking her own powers. Many European fairy tales involve a forest with something evil lurking in it, but Novik instead makes the forest itself a threat – and just how to you defeat a whole forest? It’s a joy to watch the characters develop as they try to work on this problem. There is love and conflict at every turn, and the relationships between the characters manage to satisfy the reader’s expectations while at the same time not following predictable paths. My favourite was the relationship between Sarkan and Agnieszka. I kept expecting him to mellow, to bend his unyielding principles in the light of Agnieszka’s successes, but Novik didn’t let him succumb to my modern, post-Darcy expectations. For me, that made Sarkan’s character all the more refreshing and endearing.
There were two miniscule flaws that I found with this book. One was forgivable, and the other I could live with. Firstly, I felt there was too much left unexplained. There were references to rituals and customs, mentioned only in passing and lacking any kind of detail. That irritated me a little, but then I appreciate that it was unavoidable: to build a kingdom in the reader’s mind as strange and vast as Novik creates, it is essential to have a rich history to it. However, some details needed to be glossed over in order to keep the book to a reasonable length, otherwise it would spiral out of control with tangential details. And adding in all the details would detract from the excellent pace of the main story, so the omissions were forgivable. Secondly, was a flaw which carried on throughout the novel without explanation: Sarkan would appear to answer Agnieszka’s thoughts when she hadn’t spoken them aloud. I thought this might be because Sarkan was a mind reader. Yet if he had been, I would have expected Agnieszka to have been fazed by this. Since she is not, I don’t know what to conclude. It might seem like sloppy writing, yet the rest of the narrative is so tightly written, with not a word seeming out of place, that I find that hard to believe. In the end, it was a minor flaw which, while noticed, did not detract from my appreciation of the novel as a whole.
Authors sometimes come across books that they wish they’d written; this is a book that I wish I had written. It’s unique, beautiful and engaging. The story works on so many levels. Believe it or not, it was a month or so after reading it, as I was working on crafting my own fairytale, that I realised that Uprooted could be read as a new take on the old “dragon capturing the maiden” tale. This was simply not an aspect I picked up on while reading since it isn’t hammered home but is left to the reader’s own interpretation.
This book works beautifully as a stand-alone novel and while I want Novik to write more like this, I almost don’t want her to move the characters away from where she left them or change them in any way. One thing’s for sure though: this book should be on your reading list, if it isn’t already, and Novik’s next novel will be top of mine.