Every now and then, I get a book that has all the things I’ve wanted in an adventure. I end up devouring the book, staying up far too late, and then suffering from a book hangover for a while. Uprooted, by Naomi Novik, turned out to be just such a book for me, living up to all the praise I’ve heard about it since it was published last year. This book has Eastern European folklore, dire situations, daring chases and escapes, magical warfare, breathtaking villainy, redemption, and just a soupçon of love. Oh, how I loved this book!
Agnieszka is as surprised as anyone when the local wizard picks her for her his next servant/assistant. The wizard, known as the Dragon, keeps the Wood from taking over the valley where Agnieszka’s village and a number of other rural towns are located. The Wood has been waging mindless war on the people in this region of Polnya for longer than anyone can remember. Deadly pollens drive people mad and various creatures have been known to snatch people away, never to be seen again. Without the Dragon, everything Agnieszka knows would be destroyed within days. At one point, Agnieszka talks about the sinister forest:
I’d always hated the Wood, of course, but distantly. It had been a hailstorm before harvest, a swarm of locusts in the field; more horrible than those things, more like a nightmare, but still just acting according to its nature. Now it was something else entirely, a living thing deliberately reaching out the full force of its malice to hurt me, to hurt everyone I loved; looming over my entire village and ready to swallow it up just like Porosna. (181*)
Throughout the book, speeches like this and other descriptions of the Wood reminded me that Europe was, for centuries, covered in primeval forest—a forest that inspired many of the fairy tales we still tell today.
If Uprooted were pure fairy tale, ordinary life concerns would be glossed over and a magical thingie would be all Agnieszka needs to right all the wrongs the Wood has done. Uprooted is not that kind of story. For one, Agnieszka is always filthy. She can’t cook without ruining a dress and ending up with food in her hair. It drives the Dragon nuts. For another thing, Agnieszka’s magic, once she discovers it, is just as unruly as she is. Where the Dragon can summon magic with a careful phrase, Agnieszka’s involves singing magic words to old folk tunes, a few handfuls of herbs or rocks, and a certain amount of stubbornness. (She reminds me a lot of the witches from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, though Agnieszka doesn’t practice headology on people.) These flaws made me fall utterly in love with this character.
As the story rolls along, things get more complicated than just the Dragon and Agnieszka trying to hold off the Wood, mostly because Agnieszka refuses to take the fact that no one has done certain things before as a reason to not try. When representatives of the King of Polnya and one of the princes show up at the Dragon’s tower, everything goes to hell in short order. I was fascinated by the way that almost everything that the protagonists would do from the best of intentions would turn into disaster. I could follow their logic right back to the beginning and not find any flaw, yet still see how good intentions can be used against these characters when their enemy knows them so well.
In order to resolve all these conflicts, Agnieszka and the Dragon have to resort to some of my favorite tropes in folklore and fairy tales: extreme cleverness and a keen enough insight to see what the real problem is. Since Agnieszka is such an iconoclast when it comes to what people expect of her, she is the perfect person to figure out how to stop a messy, magical war before it claims even more lives.
I enjoyed Uprooted so much that I kind of regret borrowing it from the library, because I want a copy of my own that I can dive back into the story as often as I want.
* Quote is from the 2015 Random House kindle edition.