Book review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

(cover image courtesy Tor Books)

 

There is something deliciously subversive about Noami Novik’s Uprooted, an epic fantasy novel that seems to promise something sweetly benign in the first few chapters, before giddily defying expectations every step of its uniformly excellent way.

The book starts out innocently enough with the protagonist and narrator Agnieszka, a 17 year old girl from a village called Dvernik, wondering who will be chosen by the local wizard and lord, the Dragon, to be his sole companion in his immense tower over the next 10 years.

Agnieszka, along with her entire village, is certain that she won’t be chosen, with the dubious honour of being the chosen one falling to her best friend and soulmate Kasia, who has been groomed from a young age to appeal to everything the Dragon seems to look for in his, supposedly platonic, companion.

Much to her surprise, she is chosen, largely because of her latent magical ability which she doesn’t recognise she possesses, but which the aged wizard, who looks far younger than his century plus years thanks to some measure of immortality conferred by his gifts, knows she possesses in spades.

He is compelled by the King’s law to choose her to train in the magical arts, a pressing concern in the kingdom of Polnya, and its neighbour Rosya with whom it has a fractious, often warlike, relationship, where an evil malignant entity known as the Wood, which can corrupt and despoil people and is hellbent on humanity’s destruction, constantly seeks to wipe out all life in its path.

What first reads as a bucolic story of peasant girl discovering her gifts, and winning over her gruff mentor in the process – the Wizard is nothing if not cantankerous, unwilling to get close to anyone in any form – soon transforms into a lushly-told, epic beyond words battle between flawed good and horrific evil, with a resolution that rewards the muscular storytelling that precedes it.

 

 

And muscular the narrative most certainly is.

An unflinching look at the darkness that hides in the hearts of men and women, even those with the best of intentions and purity of belief, and the way this can take physical form, Uprooted manages to pack a series’ worth of narrative into perfectly-told length.

Rather than feeling like you’re desperately trying to cram in all the various plot points at breakneck, half-done speed, Novik provides a book that flows profoundly beautifully and well, offering up an exquisitely-well poised narrative, vivid characters who leap to life with minimal introduction, dark undercurrents and an imperfect protagonist whose heart is most certainly in the right place.

While her skills do rise to meet her aspirations, it’s not a smooth trajectory with Agnieszka getting it wrong as much as she gets it right; this adds a delightful and reassuring element of grounded humanity to the story which has magic at its core but never forgets that these are fallible people wielding it.

It’s this balance between rugged, flawed humanity and the mysteries and poetry of magic – it’s not kiddy time stuff either with many of the spells playing ferociously well and without apology on deeply elemental, world-changing levels – that makes Uprooted such a pleasure to read.

Yes, much of the narrative is driven by Agnieszka and the Dragon’s attempts to thwart the great evils afoot in their land, but it never loses sight of who they are or why they are fighting, with their motivations, their successes and failures integral to the telling of this magnificently well told, expansive tale.

Novik has succeeded in ways that will leave you gasping with pleasure, awe and more than a little trepidation, in crafting a dense but accessible story for the ages, a novel that pulses with dark and light, hope and despair and some fantastically well-choreographed back-and-forth between Agnieszka and the Dragon who grow closer but not in any of the cutesy Beauty and the Beast ways you might expect.

Uprooted is grandly told, muscular fantasy storytelling, a masterwork that is as dense as they come, filled with fastidious world building and intricate relationships and portents of doom, and get gorgeously accessible and real, thanks largely to a protagonist who, though magical to the core, is as human and thus fallible as they come, and yet possessed of the kind of chutzpah and willingness to fight on for what she loves and believes that will have you cheering her on as you frantically turn every page, eager to see where it all ends up.

 

(cover image courtesy Tor Books)

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