Book review: Uprooted

We turned our horses and went north, picking our way through brambles and the ruins of small poor houses, sagging on their beams, thatched roofs fallen in. I tried not to look at the ground. Moss and fine grass covered it thickly, and tall young trees were stretching up for sun, already spreading out overhead and breaking the sunlight into moving, shifting dapples. But there were shapes still half-buried beneath the moss, here and there a hand of bones breaking the sod, white fingertips poking through the soft carpeting green that caught the light and gleamed cold. Above the houses, if I looked towards where the village square would have stood, a vast shining silver canopy spread, and I could hear the far-off rustling whisper of the leaves of a heart-tree."

Uprooted, p 192

Do you ever sit down with a book and feel like you’re reading it in exactly the right month?

I felt that way about Uprooted by Naomi Novik, which I read back in August. It’s a lush book that draws on Polish fairytale and folklore, and it’s full of magic, giant trees, and mystery. It’s story is like a ripe, juicy, late-summer fruit: sweet and deep and something to savour. It is a lovely, slow fairytale.

I loved it.

Uprooted has all the strappings you might expect to see in its genre: a wizard in a tower, a dense wood, a young heroine, a magic sword, a royal family… the list goes on, and while I love all of these things in fairytales normally, I was pleasantly surprised by how fresh Novik made them feel. Like a gift I hadn’t been expecting. We get all the familiar elements that lend a feeling of magic to the story, then we get actual magic in all its poetic glory, and then we get lots of little twists Novik has made to make things more interesting and cognoscente of contemporary perspectives.

But before I get ahead of myself, here is the synopsis:

Agnieszka loves her valley home in a quiet village. 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 the Wood’s dark forces at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his assistance: every ten years, one young woman must be handed over to serve him without question.

The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon with 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 when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.

The synopsis is how Uprooted first comes across as a Beauty & the Beast/Koschei the Deathless retelling. It is, thankfully, not really either. Not for more than a hot minute, anyway. Instead, Uprooted has a strong, fiercely independent female protagonist and a plot like a stream, constantly twisting and turning and taking us to new places. And at the heart of the story, no matter where we think we are going, there is the dark, malicious Wood running like an undercurrent all throughout.

Of all the characters I loved in this novel, I was particularly impressed with the Wood. It might not seem it, but it’s an unusual villain with incredible depth. Uprooted is a slow book, but the Wood is never without mystery and intrigue, and alongside Novik’s treatment of magic, is one of the best aspects of the novel.

Also, when I say the story is slow, I mean slow. Uprooted is a fantasy/fairytale novel, after all. There is an entire chapter dedicated to the performance of one spell, if that helps put things in perspective. (It’s a very beautiful spell and a good chapter.) Thankfully the story is never, ever dull.

Agnieszka and Kasia are standout characters, as are Alosha and Sarkan, but Novik doesn’t slack on anyone. She digs deep with her characters and gives them shades of grey that you would and wouldn’t expect. Her characters are far from perfect, but many remain compelling—and even loveable—all the same. And by far my favourite character arc was Agnieszka’s. She grew so much without sacrificing the best things about herself, and her projected character arc at the close of the novel was even more deliciously satisfying. (I died, I loved it so much.)

But it’s not just the characters in Uprooted that are well done. I’m still impressed by the nuance and poeticism in Novik’s writing—it’s mesmerizing, as full of magic as the story itself. It’s a treat to experience and paired with her ability to craft an excellent story, I now have all her other work on my radar for future reads!

On the novel’s romance: it was a bit abrupt, but it was also quite tertiary to the actual plot. It wasn’t perfect, nor are its characters, but I never felt like Novik intended it to be that way; we have two strong, independent, and interesting characters who cannot live normal lives; it’s hard to imagine them having a normal relationship, too. And given each character’s arc, I wasn’t in any way offended by the connection our two characters developed, though I know it has bothered a small handful of readers.

Romance aside, one of the actual themes of the story is connection. Not just romantic connection—that just scratches the surface. It’s about all the ways in which a person can be connected to another, to a place, to their past or present. To their passions.

It’s just such a good book. Novik writes about magic like few others, and has accomplished so much with Uprooted. And while I did mention I enjoyed reading this book in August, there really isn’t a bad time to pick it up. It’ll leave you feeling full and satisfied but still yearning for more. I mean, the first thing I did when I finished reading was do a quick online search to see if a sequel is in the works. I need more! But no such luck, at least at the moment.

Uprooted is a uniquely magical experience, and the perfect book to sink into if you’re looking for a little escape. It’s one of my favourite reads this year, and I highly recommend it to all fantasy and fairytale lovers.

4.5/5 stars