Uprooted – Naomi Novik

★★★★★

I am shamefully late to the Uprooted party, which is my own damn fault. I found out about this story during the Goodreads choice awards – it was a nominee – and subsequently realized it had won both a Hugo and a Nebula award. I had very good intentions to read it right away!

That was two years ago.

Anyway, I’ve rectified this terrible mistake and am so glad I  finally got round to it. This is a great book! And I’m totally having a great streak of “badass female protagonist who saves the day” plotlines.

The story begins as Agnieszka and her best friend Kasia head to the Choosing, where the Dragon – a powerful wizard who protects the area from the dark corruption of the Wood – will choose the prettiest, most talented, most special girl to work as a servant for 10 years. Everyone is assured that Kasia will be chosen, but it turns out that Agnieszka is a witch, so the Dragon takes her instead.

With no chance even to say goodbye, Agnieszka is whisked away to the Dragon’s tower to learn to use her powers. This is hampered in the following ways :

  • The Dragon is not good with people – to start with, he’s arrogant, impatient, extremely grumpy, and does not adapt to change. He’s also been alone for a very long time and is a bit rusty at basic human interaction.
  • He also neglects to mention to Agnieszka that she has powers and that he is training her, leading her to interpret his behaviour as some bizarre form of torture.
  • Once she starts her training in earnest (i.e. she knows it’s training), she suffers from crippling self-esteem issues. She lived her whole life believing that Kasia was “the special one” and she was an ordinary, clumsy schlub. This self-image is so ingrained that, at first, finding out that she is very special indeed doesn’t really hold any real meaning for her.

But soon enough, she starts to trust in herself and her newfound powers (and to see beyond the gruff exterior of the Dragon to the gruff interior that lies beneath. Seriously, the guy’s an ancient curmudgeon, and literally does not know how to express himself except through magic).

One of my favourite elements of the story was that while Sarkan (the Dragon) is Agnieszka’s teacher, she has a wholly different style of magic from him, based on instinct, intuition and emotion – whereas his style is more precise and based on rules and order. Instead of fighting each other’s styles,they learn to fuse them – a blend that makes them more powerful together than apart. Agnieszka works hard and earns her powers – partly through the hard graft of studying Baba Jaga’s notebooks, but also by being a master of improvisation. She adapts the basics by combining and recombining them in an endless succession of crafty spells. By not knowing (or not caring about) the established “rules” of magic, she is able to think outside the box and solve problems that much more experienced wizards can’t.

Another great element was the friendship between Kasia and Agnieszka. While a lesser book would have abandoned Kasia as soon as she wasn’t chosen, her story is interwoven with that of Agnieszka and Sarkan and she is just as vital to their efforts to rid the land of the threat posed by the Wood.

There’s just so much to love here – the rich world-building and character development, the pacing that starts off slow, but builds inexorably towards the final, bruising conflict against the Wood.  Blending elements of Russian folklore, Beauty and the Beast,and a smidge of Howl’s Moving Castle. I wish that there could be a sequel – I’d love to see what Agnieszka gets up to 50 years into being a witch – but Uprooted is great all on its own.


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