Naomi Novik is best known for her Temeraire series set during an alternate version of the Napoleonic Wars in which dragons are used in aerial combat. After reading the first Temeraire book in March I was delighted when I unexpectedly received a review copy of Novik’s new novel. While Uprooted is not a Temeraire story, it does have a Dragon…but not of the winged, fire-breathing variety. The Dragon in Uprooted is a wizard – the most powerful wizard in the kingdom. Which kingdom? Well, we aren’t really told, but it does resemble Poland in the 16th century.
Our narrator, Agnieszka, lives in Dvernik, a village on the edge of a dark and sinister forest known only as the Wood. The villagers rely on the Dragon to defend them from the horrors that lurk in the Wood, but his protection comes at a price: every ten years the Dragon selects a seventeen-year-old girl from the village and takes her away to live with him in his tower. Nobody knows what happens to the girls during their time with the Dragon, but when they return ten years later they have changed and are unwilling to go back to their old lives in the village.
The year Agnieszka turns seventeen is a Dragon-year and she waits anxiously with the other girls her age while he makes his choice. Everyone thinks it will be the beautiful Kasia, Agnieszka’s best friend, but the Dragon has other ideas and it is Agnieszka herself who ends up in his tower. At first she has no idea what the Dragon wants from her and spends most of her time trying to avoid him, but it’s not long before she discovers why she was chosen. As Agnieszka learns more about the wizard and his magic, the evil forces within the Wood continue to grow stronger and soon she and the Dragon must work together to save the kingdom.
Uprooted is a wonderfully imaginative fantasy novel. When I first began to read, I thought it felt like a fairy tale retelling – there were definitely some elements of Beauty and the Beast as well as some references to Eastern European folklore – but very soon it started to develop into something original and different. There was a lot to love about the book and although it wasn’t as flawlessly brilliant as it seemed to be at first, I would highly recommend it both to fantasy fans and to those like me who only dip into fantasy occasionally.
I found the ways in which magic is used in the novel particularly interesting, as there are so many different types performed by the Dragon and various other characters. These range from the Dragon’s meticulous, almost scientific methods to the more natural, instinctive magic found in the old spellbooks of the great witch, Jaga. Agnieszka learns a lot about magic while living in the Dragon’s tower; it was fascinating and I was slightly disappointed when the scope of the story broadened and the action moved first to court and then to other parts of the kingdom.
The relationship between Agnieszka and the Dragon is well written, particularly in the first half of the book, but a lot of time is also spent on exploring the strong female friendship between Agnieska and her best friend, Kasia. There’s also a romantic thread to the story but this does not form a big part of the plot, which could be either a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you feel about romance. Personally I would have liked this aspect of the novel to have been developed in a little bit more depth as it seemed to be neglected halfway through as a very long and drawn out magical battle took centre stage instead.
The most memorable thing about Uprooted, though, was the role played by the Wood. When people talk about books, they often say that the setting felt almost like a character. With this book, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the setting really is a character. The Wood is portrayed as not just a collection of trees, but as a strong evil presence – an intelligent living entity with thoughts, feelings and desires. I found it genuinely creepy and menacing and the fact that it isn’t human makes it an unforgettable fantasy villain.
I’m not sure whether Naomi Novik is going to write more books set in this world. There is the potential for more, but the way Uprooted ended suggests that it will remain a standalone. Either way I’m happy – and I still have the rest of the Temeraire series to read!
Thanks to Pan Macmillan for providing a copy of this book for review.