Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Genre: Adult fantasy
Publisher: Del Rey
Release date: May 19 2015
Source: eARC from publisher via Edelweiss
The nitty-gritty: A glorious, intricate fantasy with strong horror elements, that drew me in and held me spellbound.
Next door, Wensa would be cooking chestnuts and dried plums and carrots, with a slab of tender beef, to bring over, and Kasia—Kasia would be there, after all. Kasia would be rolling the beautiful fine senkach cake on its spindle before the fireplace, pouring on the next layer of batter at each turn to make the pine-tree spikes. She had learned to make it when we were twelve: Wensa had traded away the lace veil she had been married in, twice her height, to a woman in Smolnik, in exchange for teaching Kasia the recipe. So that Kasia would be ready to cook for a lord.
I’ve read many glowing reviews of Uprooted in the past few weeks, and mine is just one more to add to the list. This story was everything I love in a book and more: beautiful writing that doesn’t bog down the story, a fantasy world more strange and terrifying and magical than I could ever imagine, and characters I loved immediately, even before I got to know them properly. This is my first Naomi Novik book, but it’s certainly not the first book she’s written. She’s published eight books in her Temeraire series, with a ninth one on the way, and with at least ten published books under her belt, you can tell she has finely honed her craft. Novik is a special writer who really knows how to bring words to life. Every description, every bit of imagery, each emotion a character feels—all are carefully placed in the story and woven together with meticulous care. It’s rare to come across a story where each element is of the highest skill, and I’m so happy to have found this novel.
Although the story is complex, I’ll give you the basics—although I won’t reveal too much, because it’s best to go into Uprooted without too much information. Agnieszka lives in the small village of Dvernik at the edge of the Wood, a dark and dangerous place where people sometimes get lost, but rarely do they ever come out again. The village is watched over by a wizard nicknamed the Dragon, who ventures down from his high tower once every ten years to hand-pick one of the village’s seventeen-year-old girls, who he takes to his tower to live for the next ten years, until it’s time to select the next girl. No one is really sure what happens to these girls, only that after their ten years is up, they leave the village, never to return. Even so, the people of Dvernik understand that giving up one of their own is their tribute, and in exchange, the Dragon protects them from the terrible Wood.
But on the day Agnieszka is standing with her peers, waiting for the Dragon to make his selection, he unexpectedly passes up her friend Kasia, the most beautiful girl in Dvernik and the one everyone expected would be picked. Instead, he chooses Agnieszka, who is immediately whisked away to the tower. Meanwhile, threats of war between the two lands of Polnya and Rosya are brewing, and the Wood continues to encroach on the land, bringing with it a terrible corruption that could destroy everyone. It’s up to Agnieszka and the Dragon to stop both threats, but is their magic strong enough to face the horrible Wood?
Where to begin? Novik’s imagination is never-ending. Just when I thought I’d read the most wonderful and creative idea, she’d top herself and come up with something even more amazing. From the magical Spindle river that runs through the village, to the Dragon’s sentinels, hovering insect-like things that he uses as spies, to evil books, Uprooted is chock-full of magical goodness. Novik’s magic system is wonderful too. I loved the simplicity of conjuring magic by speaking words, which Sarkan (the Dragon’s actual name) attempts to teach Agnieszka. One of the first things he teaches her is how to change her soiled and ripped clothing by uttering one word, a word that produces an elaborate gown. But my favorite magic was when Sarkan and Agnieszka blend their magic together to create something stronger than either one could make alone.
Which brings me to the characters. I’ve heard other bloggers talk about how swoonworthy Sarkan is, and they are absolutely right! He starts out as an ass—in fact, if I’m being completely honest, he’s an ass through most of the story—but there’s something about him that tugged at me. He treats Agnieszka poorly, always calling her stupid and complaining about how disheveled she always seems to be. But I could tell, underneath his gruff manner, that he was starting to care for her. It’s almost as if he’s in denial, that a plain girl like her could affect a powerful wizard, and that denial felt completely honest and real to me.
And get ready for some sexytimes, folks! Yep, this may be a fairy tale on the outside, but it’s an adult fairy tale, and Novik has written one of the best sex scenes I’ve ever read. And by “best” I mean “real.” The dialog, the situation the two find themselves in, it all just worked.
I loved many of the other characters in this book, including Agnieszka’s best friend Kasia and a witch named Alosha, who has forged a sword that can kill anything. But the star of the show and “best character” award has to go to the Wood, the fantastically creepy and terrifying forest where nothing good ever happens. Uprooted is just as much horror story as it is fantasy, and the Wood harbors some very scary things. It also infiltrates people and objects in order to spread its corruption to the village. Think The Exorcist and Invasion of the Body Snatchers and you’ll have an idea of what to expect.
I did take a half star off my rating because the pacing really slowed down for me in one spot, when Agnieszka and Sarkan are separated for a good portion of the story. Agnieszka winds up at the palace, and the goings on at court weren’t nearly as interesting to me as the times when the two characters are together in Sarkan’s tower. But it was a minor issue and nothing that should keep anyone away from this story.
Near the end we finally discover why Sarkan takes a girl every ten years, and it’s not what you think. We also discover the mystery behind the Wood, which I loved. And if you’re wondering about the title, well, you’ll discover several layers of meanings there. Novik combines so many different elements—fairy tales, political intrigue, mystery, romance and horror—and makes it all work together beautifully. And I’m so happy this is a standalone. By the end, you’ll understand that the author has told us everything we need to know about these characters and this world. Even the last line of the book is perfectly timed, and I felt a deep satisfaction, and shed a few tears of joy, when I turned the last page. Highly recommended!
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.
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