UPROOTED by Naomi Novik — a Review

I’m a sucker for fairy tales, and I really enjoyed Naomi Novik’s HIS MAJESTY’S DRAGON, so I had to read UPROOTED, right? I mean, a great author telling a fairy tale–what’s not to love? But that would be underselling UPROOTED. There’s so much more to this book.

UPROOTED is the tale of Agnieszka, a 17-year-old girl who has grown up in the shadow of the Dragon’s tower. The Dragon is a powerful wizard who chooses a girl every ten years to live with him. He chooses a girl who is special in some way, and at the end of the decade, the girl is so changed, that when she leaves the tower, she leaves the village, never to be seen again. Agnieszka has grown up knowing that her best friend, Kasia, will be selected. Kasia is beautiful, smart, brave, and capable; Agnieszka is a bit more clumsy, fearful, less put together. But on choosing day, when Agnieszka is chosen, perhaps the only one more surprised than her is the Dragon himself. You see, he is bound by the King’s law to pick a girl if she displays a magical ability–wizards and witches are that rare.

Of course, the stern and sarcastic Dragon’s tower is a place of pristine beauty. Agnieszka’s torn hems, skuffed knees, and unkempt hair do not seem to fit well there, and nor does Agnieszka’s preference for low magic, in contrast to the Dragon’s crisp, precise high magic. But together, they must find a way to work together to protect the region from the Wood, a place of darkness and corruption, whose evil is spreading throughout the region and even infecting the royal court of Agnieszka’s kingdom and their rival, neighboring kingdom.

As you can tell by now, there is a lot here that could easily fall into the category of tropes and cliches: The wizard taking a girl to his tower, the haunted forest, high and low magic, a kidnapped princess, a prince ready to hack his way into the heart of the Wood, and more. In a lesser author’s hands these would have been boring. But not in Novik’s. There is a charm and uniqueness to the way she presents these ideas. And I don’t mean that Novik is subverting or twisting these tropes. In fact, most are quite transparent, but simply handled well. It’s like a restaurant menu that lists simple dishes composed of few ingredients, but when they arrive at your table, you see the care and skill of the chef and you savor each bite.

That all being said, there is also a couple of things in this book that you don’t see in most fairy tale books. The first is the friendship between Agnieszka and Kasia. The two girls grow up together, and the expectations and reality of the Dragon’s choosing puts a strain on their relationship. Nevertheless, this deep and evolving relationship lies at the heart of the book, and it’s rare to see two women like this. Second, well, you’ll know it when you see it. To say more would be spoilery. Let say that despite the fairy tale nature of the story, there are a couple scenes that skew a little older. And third, it’s a standalone book. So rare in the genre these days. However, the book almost feels like a trilogy: a story in the tower, a story in the royal capital, and a story in the Wood. So it should still scratch that epic itch.

This is a book that will have you reading long after you should have stopped, and with a near permanent smile on your face. Go pick it up and get reading. You can thank me later.