Uprooted by Naomi Novik (Spoilers)

With magic, battling armies, girls locked in towers, and monarchy, Uprooted has elements of a fantasy epic with a fairy-tale feel. Darker than it first appears, it sits on the ‘adult’ part of ‘young-adult.’

Read the minor spoiler version of this review on goodreads.

uprooted

Set Up

I want to praise this book for having a blurb that doesn’t spoil the first half of the novel, not even the first chapter. With the internet, social media, and trailers that reveal way too much, it’s nice to be surprised by the direction a story goes in for a change. The initial set up is this: a village is protected from an enchanted wood by a wizard, known as the Dragon. In exchange, a girl must serve him for ten years. Everyone believes Kasia, Agnieszka’s best friend, will be taken next. Only Agnieszka is taken instead. Why? Because, unbeknown to her, she’s a witch. Plot twist! 

From there, each chapter reveals something new and raises the stakes until the final page. What begins as a story of student and master, becomes a story of war between nations and the battle to defeat a growing corruption in the form of the Wood. It’s smooth in its execution and keeps things interesting. Very well done!

However, I feel obliged to mention that Agnieszka is nearly raped in chapter three – not by the Dragon, but by Prince Marek who’s visiting the tower. This may be off-putting to some people. Personally, I wasn’t bothered by the inclusion of rape as I don’t think any topic is taboo in fiction if it’s handled well. My problem is that this scene is pretty pointless. So – Prince Marek attempts to have sex with Agnieszka despite her not wanting to, she reveals her magic in self-defence, and promptly bashes him over the head with a tray. Then it’s literally forgotten about: The Dragon uses magic to replace Prince Marek’s memory with a memory of Agnieszka loving his advances but being sloppy in bed so he won’t try again, and sends him on his merry way. Later, Prince Marek rediscovers that Agnieszka is a witch, and then the rest of the events unfold from this rediscovery.

So what’s the point? To make us feel sorry for a character we already feel sorry for? To make us hate a character we’re expected to have sympathy for later? It baffles me, honestly. Again, not against writing difficult subject matter – by all means, get this out in the open! – but here it weakened the novel.

Theme

‘Uprooted’ as well as being a reference to the Wood, refers to family roots and community roots. It’s about connection. Agnieszka fears being taken from her home, losing her connection to her villagers like so many of the women taken before her. The Dragon, and other immortals like him, separate themselves from people. Then, there’s the Wood that thrives on trapping people, created by the Wood-queen who refuses to let anything go. The novel is about when to maintain roots and when to let them go: the Wood-queen eventually lets go, and the Dragon eventually establishes new roots with Agnieszka.

Yes, Agnieszka and the Dragon get together in the end. Problem is: I didn’t really buy their romance. I tend to be a bit emotionless when it comes to lovey-dovey-kissy-kissy, but well-written characters can usually bring me to an agreeable ‘Yup, they’re in love.’ But I didn’t get that with Uprooted. Outside of lusty scenes, there didn’t seem to be any romantic affection between the two leads. When they aren’t kissing (which is most of the time) they had more of a grumpy professor and bumbling student vibe. Sweet at times, but not the way I think was intended! *shudders* In all seriousness, the lack of affection between the two of them really dampens their relationship – the Dragon actually spends most of his time berating Agnieszka!

Staying Power

Despite its problems, there’s a lot to like: The Wood is a fantastic, eerie setting/villain, the action scenes are fun, and the prose is clear and crisp. Good balance of seriousness and humour, albeit mostly at the main character’s expense. I don’t think there’s a single chapter where Agnieszka isn’t humiliated in some form – if that’s a turn off, steer clear! But there’s a good deal of dry comedy and irony, also. The Dragon, in particular, drips sarcasm.

I wish the novel spent more time on Kasia. First perceived as the beautiful, intelligent, flawless girl, about midway through the book it’s brought to light the mistreatment she received as being fated for the Dragon’s tribute. She was neglected by her mother and feels intense jealousy and hatred towards her friends, her bitter resentment leading to a desire to leave her village, almost glad that the Dragon will take her. All of this is hidden, trained to be the perfect lady for a man she fears. Glorious stuff! I love it! But then, she gets no other development! After all this is brought to light, it’s not mentioned again except briefly at the end. No! This is good stuff – it should be explored. If there was a sequel to this novel, I’d want it to be about Kasia.

While I’m not enamoured by this book, I like it overall. I can easily see this being a reader’s favourite. It has mature themes, including sex and violence, so would recommend it for older teens.

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