What started out as a disappointing retelling of a Beauty and the Beast legend morphed into something richer and more complicated.
I’ll admit, when I started reading Uprooted by Naomi Novik, I was saddened that Agnieszka, like so many heroines in young adult fiction, was becoming romantically involved with a domineering man. In this case, it’s the “Dragon,” Sarkan, who demands a tribute of a young woman from Agnieszka’s region every 10 years. Obviously, this is the year that Agnieszka is chosen to serve- a surprise to everyone, as she is not accomplished, tidy, or talented, unlike her best friend Kasia.
The Dragon is a wizard tasked with protecting the region from the Wood, whose ability to corrupt those who enter is terrifying and horrible. Agnieszka bumbles around Sarkan’s tower, trying to learn her (subordinate) place, when she realizes that she is gifted with magic, and Sarkan is her teacher.
Stockholm syndrome notwithstanding, the relationship betweeen Agnieszka and Sarkan becomes more than just teacher and student. Yes, there is some romance and passion, but more importantly, collaboration and commitment to a common purpose: defeating the Wood and cleaning the corruption from the people who have been taken by the wood.
Novik draws on Polish fairy tales and the legends of Baba Yaga to flavor this novel in a way unlike the typical, magicky fantasy. There is a richness of place and tradition in Agnieszka’s village, with bottles of vodka passed at celebrations, farmers and cattlemen, cakes cooked slowly on spindles. The details Novik uses from this heritage lift this novel well above the typical pseudo-middle ages atmosphere that seems to be the norm in fantasy.
Novik also populates her novel with some amazing characters who have complicated relationships that develop and change. Agnieszka and her best friend Kasia start as childhood besties, sharing confidences and playing, all the while realizing that Kasia – due to her refinement, talents, and beauty, will be taken away by the Dragon. When that expectation falls through, Kasia is lost and Agnieszka feels guilty – and special. When Kasia is taken by the Wood, Agnieszka risks everything to clear her of its corruption. Clearing Kasia changes her, and again, the relationship between the two young women changes. I loved the development of this relationship.
Minor characters are treated with the same level of detail and story. The magicians Alosha, Solya, and Father Ballo all have histories that shape them. And the baddest of the bad in this story – the Queen of the Wood – also has moments where the reader can sympathize and understand her journey to corruption and hate.
Novik treats magic in an interesting way that can be a bit frustrating for a reader. In the world of Uprooted, there is a magical language that seems to be only for special magic people. I’m not totally clear how it works. I did like that Agnieszka and Sarkan can use the same magical language to different effects. Agnieszka has difficulty with Sarkan’s regimented methods and uses her singing way to use magic.
I would recommend Uprooted to any young person who enjoyed the Twilight series but felt cheated by them. In Uprooted, they will find a tale of magic and power, rich with detail and character.