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Book Review: Uprooted

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Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Uprooted

“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.

I read Naomi Novik’s first novel, His Majesty’s Dragon (2006), last year as part of an organized challenge to read twelve women one had not read before. It was a good book. Plenty of people thought so. Someone named Peter Jackson optioned the movie rights.

Unfortunately, I had eleven other women to read and dozens of other books besides. I never caught up with the sequels and I hadn’t experienced how her writing had grown. When Uprooted became available for review, I took my chance.

And I am so very glad I did. Part folktale, part retelling of “Beauty and the Beast”, it already seems timeless. Novik’s background characters are as vibrant as spring leaves and her protagonists are as solid as old oaks. You care about them, is what I’m saying.

The more I read, and in particular the more fantasy I read, the more I value that. Ideas are exciting. Worldbuilding is interesting. Lyrical writing is beautiful. But none of it matters, none of it lives, without deft believable characters. Agnieszka is perhaps the best point of view character I’ve encountered in half a hundred genre books. She’s the unconventional iconoclast I longed for. The one who doesn’t know they are, or why they are, pushing against their environment. She just is.

Her beast, The Dragon, occupies the other end of that spectrum. Intentionally proper, positioned, and perfunctory. Exactly the pairing you want from the tale as old as time. Even so, the callbacks to that story, whichever version you love, are subtle. Elegant. almost invisible. Lovely.

Uprooted is a story about love and loss, about death and rebirth, about learning and unlearning, forgiving and fulfilling. About two worlds coming together on every scale, reflected in and refracted by one another, colliding and coalescing. You should read it. Risk being drawn into the wood with the first fifty pages here.

Recommended for fans of libraries, Lilia, and Rumpbelle shippers.

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