UPROOTED is the classic story of a dragon who takes a maiden from the village every decade. Except it’s not. This dragon is the Dragon, a wizard who protects the village from the wildness in the Wood and who picks a girl every decade, but never lays a finger on her. Until Agnieszka, who turns out to be more than he bargained for, with powers of her own. Naomi Novik writes of two warring kingdoms, a dangerous, insidious forest in-between them and a small village that is protected by a man in a high tower, in a country that could be medieval Eastern Europe. Every girl the wizard takes into this tower is eventually released from his service but each has changed and is unable to settle back into life in the village.
Agnieszka doesn’t expect to be the chosen one — she’s a disaster, clumsy, slovenly and not at all special. The chosen one is expected to be her best friend, Kasia, the brave, clever, beautiful, young woman whom everyone expects to face her destiny with a raised head and squared shoulders. Agnieszka is just the sidekick, the one who gets dirty as soon as she is dressed, and the one who isn’t particularly brave or skilled in any way, tumbling around in the woods more often than not. So it comes as a shock to the entire village when the Dragon chooses her instead of Kasia, seeing something in her that the other girls don’t have.
Later, ensconced in the Dragon’s tower, lonely, afraid and miserable, Agnieszka finds that the previous girls have been nothing but basic cooks and servers for the Dragon, a cold solitary man who barely even looks at them. But because Agnieszka has latent magical abilities, the Dragon is bound by law to teach her how to develop them. He begins to teach her the vocabulary of magic as he knows it, trying to help her develop her abilities, forcing her to gain strength and prove herself daily, though initially every tiny spell she casts takes a massive physical toll on her.
Agnieszka’s abilities develop slowly as she gathers strength and is able to perform greater magical feats, discovering an older, wilder form of magic that the Dragon does not understand, via a book that belonged to ‘Old Jaga’, the mythical Slavic witch Baba Yaga. Her personality and confidence grow alongside her magical abilities and she slowly understands more of what she is doing, and how she is doing it. When she first reads a book from the Dragon’s library, she does not realise the power of its words: “The words sang like birds out of [her] mouth, beautiful, melting like sugared fruit”. The Dragon does not remain her teacher once she is empowered with her own magic: he becomes her collaborator, learning from her methods at times. Agnieszka’s development as a character is a joy to watch and read — she grows into herself, into her independence and gains more agency at every step of her journey.
There is an element of romance involved in Uprooted too, but it isn’t the focus of the story. At the core of Uprooted is the friendship between Agnieszka and Kasia, two girls raised together who believed their friendship had an expiration date when Kasia was chosen to go to the wizard’s tower. But when the Dragon takes Agnieszka instead, everything changes. Agnieszka is the stubborn one, the one who won’t listen, the one who refuses to let go of her friend no matter what the consequences, no matter what befalls Kasia along the way. Their loyalty to each other is rock solid, and it contains the heart of the novel.
Going ahead in the narrative, there are royal politics, court intrigues and a growing evil in the Wood that must be contained. Agnieszka becomes involved in the Dragon’s fight against the sentient Wood and though their methods differ and though they both have a lot to learn from each other, they share a common enemy that must be vanquished. The vocabulary of the magic they use is itself varied — Agnieszka’s method is wild and free and organic, and the Dragon’s — and that of some of the other wizards in the cities — is calculated, contained and very specific. While the Dragon re-mains cut off from the Wood and can only contain it from a cold, calculated distance, Agnieszka walks into the heart of it and communes with it in ways that have not been seen in centuries — hers is a power that can heal, cure and purify, not just contain. Of course, the Wood itself is a brilliant, terrifying adversary: this is literally the dark heart of the monster in the forest come to life, its threat and sly magic and rapid growth making it a complex antagonist.
Uprooted is a story as much about Agnieszka’s attempt to save the natural environment of her world, as it is a story of her trying to save her friend and village. It’s easy to read Uprooted as an envi-ronmentally aware, cautionary tale but that may make it sound moralistic and pedantic when it is anything but. It does however have a large, sprawling plot, one that can easily be seen as epic. Yet somehow it never flags. Certain aspects will come across clearly as classic tropes — some would call them cli-chés but they aren’t, not when they’re just treated with such sincerity and joy and unique fairy tale charm. This is also very much a folk tale, a most readable fantasy epic, dark and dangerous.
Novik is well known for her Temeraire series of alternate history fantasy novels and Uprooted is her first stand-alone story. It is funny and smart and sensitive, fantastically feminist and sexy, dark and delightful. It is a true fairly tale: violent and grisly at times, earthy and wholesome and entirely unique in its exploration of a young woman’s growth and her friendship with another women. It’s simply told, evocative with a solid command over language that is never frilly, never insincere. Uprooted is eventually a warm, hopeful book: the sort of story you can’t wait for your child to be old enough to read and love the way you did.
By Naomi Novik