Uprooted: Utterly satisfying and enthralling

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsUprooted by Naomi Novik fantasy book reviewsUprooted by Naomi Novik

Agniezska is the brave, stubborn, sensitive heroine of Naomi Novik’s recent release, Uprooted — and she’s about to steal your heart. She comes from Dvernik, a remote village on the edges of the enchanted Wood, the dark forest that creeps like a blight over interior Polnya. The only thing holding the Wood back from engulfing the land is the Dragon, a feared sorcerer who lives nearby. For his work keeping the danger at bay, every ten years the Dragon demands one young woman from the village. As the time for “the taking” approaches, everyone in the village expects the Dragon to choose Kasia, Dvernik’s golden girl and Agniezska’s best friend. However, something about Agniezska catches the Dragon’s eye and she is the one chosen to leave her family and friends for ten years to serve him in his tower.

The setup might lead you to expect a typical Beauty and the Beast story, but Uprooted quickly becomes something else. Novik’s plot weaves in elements of myth, magic, politics, coming-of-age, and yes, romance. It is easy to see the fairy-tale inspiration at work, but not always easy to pick out exactly which fairy tales she’s working from. There’s a good reason for this: Novik’s novel grew out of Polish fairy tales that her mother read to her when she was a child, mixed in with a healthy dose of her own imagination. As such, her story is populated with figures we know, such as Baba Jaga, the witch from Slavic folklore who is ferocious or maternal by turns, and figures we don’t know, such as woods-walkers and heart-trees. And an ancient legend of a marriage between a human king and a fairy queen becomes the linchpin to defeating the evil in the Wood.

The myth and legend that Novik evokes in Uprooted is only one aspect of some fantastic worldbuilding. As with her TEMERAIRE series, Uprooted is an alternate history of a medieval Slavic world; Polnya is Poland, locked in a hostile relationship with its near neighbor, Rosya (Russia). The reason for the conflict lies in the Wood itself; the queen of Polnya was taken into the Wood by a Rosyan prince and has never been seen since. In their efforts to rescue the Queen, Agniezska and the Dragon visit the capital of Polnya, navigating the treacherous waters of politics at court.

They also enter deeper into the Wood than anyone ever has, encountering horror and death. In The Wood, Novik has created an incredible setting, the fairytale analogue to Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach. It isn’t haunted — not precisely — but it is corrupted. Like more creepy versions of the apple trees Dorothy encounters in Oz, the very plants and animals of the Wood have become toxic. Something as simple as drinking water or touching a leaf in the Wood can sicken a person, sometimes with an illness that is visible like horrible deformation, and sometimes with an illness that doesn’t present itself until the person finds themselves in the midst of some unthinkable act, like murdering their family. The farther into the Wood one goes, the less likely it is that they will ever make it out, much less come out unchanged. [spoiler, highlight if you want to see it:] Kasia is taken by walkers, which are like giant men made of sticks and branches, and thrust into a heart tree, one of the Wood’s many strongholds. Although she only resides there for a night, cleansing her of the corruption inside and out requires all of the magic that Agniezska and the Dragon can summon. And even when they succeed, Kasia is forever changed into something part flesh, part wood.  This kind of corruption is like possession, and it is a visual metaphor for something the Wood wants desperately — to overtake all of Polnya. It’s like evil kudzu.

I don’t use the word “evil” lightly here. When we finally meet the real villain, she is terrifying and powerful, but though the darkness within her threatens humanity, it is actually a creation of human hatred and violence. The final conflict is resolved a bit too quickly for me, but it works within one of Novik’s themes, the idea that human ties to the land are deep and healing and that, in reclaiming land, we restore and strengthen ourselves. While Uprooted doesn’t telegraph any particular message or moral, this particular bit of the story could easily be a parable about our current relationship with the planet, reminding us that what we poison will eventually end up poisoning us.

Relationships are key to Uprooted. Agniezska’s relationship to the land, to the valley she grew up in, is part of what gives her such enormous power. But her relationships to others — her stubborn loyalty to Kasia, her affection for her family — are what humanize her and make her a fantastic character. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about one of my favorite relationships in the novel: the romance between Agniezska and the Dragon. Novik creates great chemistry between these characters, and Agniezska’s willful boldness complements the Dragon’s arrogant reserve. He has no idea how the outside world sees him until she comes into his life and shows him. It’s like a fantasy version of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, but Novik doesn’t gloss over the parts that Austen left out, if you know what I mean. In other words, the romance between the two fulfills all my dreams of what a satisfying fictional romance should be. Even if you’re not a fan of romance, however, there is plenty in Uprooted to enjoy and savor.

~Kate Lechler


Uprooted by Naomi Novik fantasy book reviewsThis fantasy is one part Polish folktale, one part coming-of-age magical fantasy, and one part horror. The main character is Agnieszka, a 17 year old village girl who is chosen by the local wizard, called the Dragon, to be his servant for ten years, the latest in a long string of local girls who each serve the wizard for a decade, emerging at the end somehow changed. Agnieszka turns out to be both more and less than the Dragon expected, with powerful but rather uncontrolled magic of a nature that no one alive has ever seen before, and they both become deeply embroiled in the Dragon’s ongoing battle against the Wood.

Everyone fears the Wood. It encroaches on the valley further each year, or tries to. Those who go into it never are seen again, or worse, they emerge corrupted, evil and murderous. Sometimes it sends out wolves whose bites will kill or corrupt, or huge walking stick monsters that kidnap villagers and take them into the Wood.

The descriptions of different types of magic were fascinating, especially as Nieszka learns to work with her own unique brand of magic, and to combine her magic with the Dragon’s (who is offended by the unruliness of her magic):

I shut my eyes and felt out the shape of his magic: as full of thorns as his illusion, prickly and guarded. I started to murmur my own spell, but I found myself thinking not of roses but of water, and thirsty ground; building underneath his magic instead of trying to overlay it. I heard him draw a sharp breath, and the sharp edifice of his spell began grudgingly to let mine in. The rose between us put out long roots all over the table, and new branches began to grow.

The last third of this book absolutely put me through the wringer. I felt like I’d been through a horrific war, fighting evil and corruption myself. It’s not for the faint of heart, and the death and horror went on for long enough that I considered lowering my rating. It’s difficult reading. But in the end, the book as a whole impressed me enough that I have to keep it at the full five stars. I give it a strong but qualified recommendation. It’s not for young readers (even though it has a 17 year old protagonist; I’d say 17 is about the youngest age I’d consider recommending this book to, and only if quite mature) or for those who can’t stomach reading about creepy evil things or gruesome wartime violence. It also helps if you like fantasies of the folk and fairytale variety.

Uprooted is beautifully written, with an unusual setting and a great set of characters, realistic and flawed but admirable. There’s a wonderful, touching, layered relationship between Nieszka and her friend, Kasia. It explores good and evil, love for friends, family and nation, and other complex themes in a nuanced way. One of my favorite fantasy reads this year.

~Tadiana Jones


fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsUprooted by Naomi Novik fantasy book reviewsI loved Uprooted, by Naomi Novik, and I’m going to spend this review telling you exactly why. This post will be long and opinionated.

Agnieszka (Ag-NESH-ka), daughter of a woodcutter, lives in a remote valley. The valley is menaced by the Wood, a source of frightening evil and corruption. It is different from the nearby forest, where Agnieszka spends much of her time. The valley is home to a powerful wizard called the Dragon, who holds back the Wood. Every ten years the Dragon takes a seventeen-year-old girl from the valley villages to serve him in his tower. It is the tenth year, and Agnieszka is seventeen.

What do I love about this lush fantasy novel? First of all, there’s the title. When I first heard about Uprooted, I thought, “Huh?” I assumed the title related somewhat to the experience of the main character. As I read through the book, the twin themes of rootedness and uprootedness spread out around me in a web of complexity. The book explores the nature of roots and rootedness as a source of survival and nourishment, whether the thing that has sprung from those roots is love, hatred, loyalty, conflict, folklore or magic. By the end of the book, I realized there was no better title for this story.

Then there’s the voice of our first-person narrator, Agnieszka. Novik is working with two kinds of stories here; the traditional folktale and a story of how a person with talent comes into her power. An example of the second type would be Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. As a character in a folktale, Nieshka is in many ways the Plucky Peasant Girl; smart, hard-working, loyal. Nieshka is honest about her own feelings, her loneliness and fear in the Dragon’s tower and her own naiveté, since she grew up on folktales and songs, just like everyone around her. She admires the bold young Prince Marek, who killed a hydra. She is disillusioned when the Dragon tells her the details of that battle.

None of the songs had mentioned the Vandulus Hydra being one day old: it diminished the story more than a little.

Nieshka’s tone becomes lyrical when needed and fraught when needed. At times her descriptions, especially of magic, are clumsy, fumbling, because she is trying to put into words an experience that is completely new to her.

What else to love? Well, the characters, of course. Nieshka herself is well-drawn and I believed her growth throughout the story. Her best friend Kasia has her own character arc within the tale. I believed in the Dragon, although I got impatient with his irascibility. Secondary characters like Prince Marek are not as complex, but they are well drawn, and as the Wood tightens its hold on people the Prince and his wizard, the Falcon, become more compelling. Even minor characters like Kasia’s mother, and their relationships, are authentic and convincing.

There’s the plot. Novik tries something truly daring here. She decides that the plot will spring from the main character’s actions. What a quaint idea! I feel like I’ve read a dozen books lately where the plot was deadeningly episodic, the main characters gliding – or drifting – from one action sequence to another, or just reacting, over and over, to the manipulations of the villain or an outside force. In Uprooted, there is an evil force, a powerful one with a definite goal, acting with malevolence and purpose. Still, the plot spirals out like a nautilus shell from Agnieszka’s actions. This is not because she is stupid or has fluctuating IQ syndrome. She is impetuous, but most of her actions are the right ones. The complications develop because sometimes even a right action has unintended consequences, and because this is a story about a person learning about her own powers. The plot expands as Nieshka’s world expands; from her own village and her own valley to, ultimately, an entire kingdom.

Then there is the magical system. The phrase “magical system” is a pet peeve of mine. I have always known that magic needed to be explained in fantasy, and had to have a cost – otherwise it’s just wish fulfillment. Lately, though, too many so-called fantasy books take a video-game approach to the magic. Characters chug steel-dust shots or carve runes into their skin to be able to do X-Y-Z magic.  The hero must steal the Gizmo of Gilberforce in order to boost her Battle-Readiness to an Eight so she can fight the Big Boss. This is great fun in a game. It’s stupefying in a story that’s supposed to be… well, a story. Uprooted explores the nature of magic. The wizards use magic that is structured. Everyone is in a box; every spell is written down and must be spoken exactly. There is, in their minds, only one road through the forest. For Nieshka, the magic is the forest. Nieshka can change the words of a spell so that they feel right and still get the desired result. The Dragon is miffed when, at one point, Nieshka chants the words of a healing spell to the tune of her village’s “happy birthday” song, but the spell works. Nieshka experiences magic as dynamic and fluid, and works with the flow of it, which is why water and river imagery is so important in the book. This goes back to the concept of rootedness (roots draw up water); Nieshka experiences magic as energy, as connection, which is why she is able to achieve what she does as the end.

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Another fairytale retelling by Naomi Novik!

Then, of course there are the themes. The theme of the power of the tale, for good and bad, glints like a gold-and-silver thread throughout the narrative of Agnieszka’s adventures. Prince Marek has trapped himself in his own spell, in a way, by seeing himself as a hero in a tale. Nieshka experiences the seduction of it as she rides with the triumphant prince into the capital city.

We were all living in a song; that was how it felt. I felt it myself, even with the queen’s golden head swaying back and forth with the rocking wagon and making no effort to resist the motion, even knowing how small our victory had been and how many men had died for it.

Uprooted goes on my Best of 2015 list. It does what I always hope a fantasy book will do; it explores the mystery of the human spirit with magic as a metaphor. This book quenched a thirst I didn’t even have a name for. Now that’s real magic.

~Marion Deeds


Uprooted by Naomi Novik fantasy book reviewsI loved everything about Uprooted. It’s beautifully constructed, the characters and plot all move independently and yet in concert (rather like the pieces of a fine clock), and the ending was so satisfactory that I hugged the book when I was finished reading. Uprooted is a novel which I will re-read many times throughout my life.

~Jana Nyman

Publication Date: May 19, 2015. Naomi Novik, author of the New York Times bestselling and critically acclaimed Temeraire novels, introduces a bold new world rooted in folk stories and legends, as elemental as a Grimm fairy tale. “Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.” Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life. Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood. The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her. But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.

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KATE LECHLER, on our staff from May 2014 to January 2017, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are Bradbury, James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, and Philip Pullman.

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23 comments

  1. susan emans /

    I already have Uprooted reserved at my library. I am looking forward to reading it even more now. Great review!

  2. Katie /

    I’m so glad you reviewed this book. And even more glad you recommended it to me. Achingly good.

  3. I’m in the middle of this one, and I absolutely love every word of it. Glad to see you thought the same! :D

  4. EDITOR’S NOTE: ORIGINALLY MARION BEGAN THIS REVIEW BY SAYING IT MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS, SO THE COMMENTERS BELOW ARE DISCUSSING THAT. THEN KATE AND JANA (WHO HAVE ALSO READ THE BOOK) AGREED THAT NONE OF MARION’S ANALYSIS SPOILS THE PLOT, SO WE REMOVED THE SPOILER WARNING.

    I’m not reading your review so that I can avoid spoilers, but your intro certainly makes me believe I need to put this on the tippy top of my TBR mountain!

  5. I get the feeling that this book is going on a LOT of Best of 2015 lists. :) I’m so glad you liked it!

  6. Marion – please do not take this as a slight, only an observation and and question to ponder. Why write a review with spoilers? I’m seriously thinking about this like I often contemplate the cosmos. When I look for and read reviews, it is to decide whether or not I want to read a book. If the review contains spoilers, I don’t read it – unless I’ve already read the book. And then why would I read a review after I’ve read a book? Perhaps to confirm my conclusions are inline with a respected reviewer or just to get another perspective. In hindsight, this reply should probably go elsewhere but it just struck me so I wrote it. :)

    • I’m like Beau — if I haven’t read the book, I don’t want to read a review with spoilers. I haven’t read this review (which was tough to do since I’m the one who actually posted it), but I have moved Uprooted nearer the top of my TBR pile just based on the rating (and knowing how darn stingy Marion is with those stars). I also don’t usually read reviews after I’ve read a book because the point of reading the review was to see if I want to read it.

      Beau, I think Marion probably intends this more as an essay about the book (though I can’t say for sure since I didn’t read it) and some readers may be interested in that after they’ve read the book. If we hadn’t already had Kate’s review of the book, I would have asked Marion to write the review without spoilers.

      Another option, that could please everyone, is that we could ask Marion to white-out the spoiler parts so that those who want to read them can highlight and read them and those who don’t can remain oblivious while still reading the review. Marion, is that a possibility with this review, or are the spoilers integral to the discussion?

    • The issue of spoilers in general is one that I think there’s a deep divide on. Personally, I LOVE spoilers. I seek them out for almost every kind of media I consume, and I know many others who do the same. It sounds crazy to many people, but it doesn’t ruin my enjoyment of a book or TV show. In fact, I think knowing what is going to happen enhances it for me. But I recognize that just as many people want to avoid spoilers like the plague. And the thing about spoilers is, you can’t be un-spoiled once you’ve read one, can you? So I try to be very aware of that, and avoid them or signpost them–like a meat-eater who is consciously cooking for a vegetarian. However, I don’t think it’s a bad thing that we have a diversity of attitudes towards spoilers among our reviewers–I would imagine that our readers are as diverse as we are–as long as we have a standardized way of approaching them/signposting them on the page for our readers.

  7. I was going to suggest the same thing – somehow hide the spoilers. I was actually going to say quite a bit more but had to put the kids to bed. Now I’ve slept and those thoughts are gone.
    Like Kat said, simply hiding spoilers might be easier said than done. I don’t mean to get things riled up! Just thinking out loud.
    And you are both stingy with those stars! Those ratings have helped me expand my reading because I know a 5 star rating will be a good read. It might not be my preferred genre (fairy tales), but I know it’s good.

  8. Well, I don’t think there are any spoilers. And no,I can’t write about a book I loved, whose themes are well developed and beautifully expressed, without talking about those themes. Sorry. I just don’t know how to do that.

    Maybe Kate could take a look at it and see if she sees anything that gives away and crucial plot points.I could probably white those out.

  9. Beau, Kate will take a look at the review and try to adjust as necessary to remove any spoilers while also giving Marion the chance to discuss the themes she wants to discuss. I’ll update when that’s done. Thanks for the feedback!

  10. Marion introduces this as being spoilerish, but I’ve read it twice and don’t see any plot spoilers in it. Read on, folks!

  11. Okay, I have changed the opening paragraph. Please read my long, opinionated and certified spoiler-free review of this great book!

  12. Excellent review, Marion. Why didn’t you mention there were spoilers??? Just kidding!!!! Seriously, I envy the way you are able to express your feelings and thoughts about a book and actually give your readers a sense of the atmosphere and ‘feeling’ of a book. Reviews seem mundane and a dime a dozen to most people. Until they try to write one. It’s not easy. Nice work.

  13. Kevin S. /

    DNF. I noticed all the female reviewers gave this book 5 stars. Maybe my maleness was a handicap when reading this book?

    I tried but I just couldn’t keep reading. I got to page 115 and raised the white surrender flag. I felt there was no foundation at the beginning…I couldn’t care less about ANY of the characters. As the story unfolded, I had SO many unanswered questions (I won’t get into them because they would be considered spoilers) that the book became unreadable.

    I can see why people would like it. It’s so folksy and quaint that my inner dialogue had a British accent while I was reading. Unfortunately, the plot just didn’t do much for me.

    • Kevin, I firmly believe that not everyone likes every book, and that’s okay. Uprooted is showing up on a lot of Best o 2015 Lists, even lists compiled by male reviewers, so I’m not sure it’s a gender divide thing, but that could certainly be part of it.

      Interestingly, I did not hear a British accent in my head when I read it.

      • Kevin S. /

        I was just joking about the gender thing and the British accent. :)

        I’m a high school teacher (I got the book in our school library) and I will definitely recommend Uprooted to my students. It has it’s good qualities and my review is definitely an outlier, so I think they would like the book.

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