Fantasy with a female lead in the adult (not YA) section? Sign me up.
Fantasy with a non-bookworm, impulsive, and emotional female lead? Sign me up even harder.
Fantasy that isn’t the beginning of a series and is actually a self-contained story that won’t leave me incredibly frustrated and waiting for years for the cliffhanger to end? This book will read itself.
Uprooted by Naomi Novik is the story of Agnieszka, a teenager who grew up in a village that is overseen with the other local villages next to a forest called the Wood by a wizard called the Dragon. Every ten years, the Dragon comes down and selects one of the seventeen year old girls from his territory to serve him for the next ten years. And of course, Agnieszka is chosen.
Agnieszka is taken back to the Dragon’s tower, from which there is no escape, and finds little notes from the previous girl he kept that help her get oriented to what is expected of her. At first, it’s just cooking three meals a day. But the Dragon isn’t content to just let Agnieszka cook for him. He forces her to partake in these weird sessions every morning where he teaches her a spell and she has to say it with his hand on her. It comes across as if he is using her as a conduit for his magic, until Agnieszka is forced to do one of the spells on her own when she is assaulted by a visiting prince named Prince Marek.
Whoops, you’re actually a witch, Agnieszka. Who saw that coming. (Not Agnieszka.)
The actual plot of the book, once all this set up is done, actually revolves around the Wood. It’s not enough that these parents are cool with their daughter being potentially taken to live with an old wizard for ten years without their consent. They are also cool with living next to the Wood, which spontaneously sends out Walkers to kidnap members of the village and take them back into the Wood, where presumably they die. Or sends them to correct members of the village, which basically means they loose themselves and the Wood takes over their body until they are purged or, more likely, die. And, on top of everything else, the Wood has already expanded to swallow an entire village. So there’s that.
The Dragon is sent off to deal with a nuisance that turns out to be a decoy while Kasia is taken by Walkers. Agnieszka, with all the confidence of a kid which just learned to take their first step and immediately fell down, rushes to go save her best friend. She succeeds, miraculously, except Kasia has been corrupted. They spend months trying to purge her, eventually successfully, and are left with Kasia the person with a body now made out of wood.
Our delightful Prince Marek now returns to the scene of the crime and demands that they repeat this miracle with his mother, who was taken by the Wood twenty years ago. Or, he threatens, he’ll have Kasia killed. Of course, Agnieszka has to say yes, which means, of course, the Dragon is going to go with her. They rescue the queen and bring her back to the capital, where she is pronounced uncorrupted. Then we get to watch the political and social chaos unfold of one: woods-running Agnieszka adjust to city life in one of the most cliched set of scenes I’ve ever had to read, and two: the Wood infiltrating the capital despite the Queen being clean. Well, there are at least a lot of dead bodies for the capital to not be infiltrated.
This book is extremely well thought out. I was nervous because a lot of this plot seemed to be structured on ridiculous ideas like no one would just leave their towns next to this evil Wood. But that’s addressed. Or that Agnieszka has this weird brand of magic that no one else but some random witch who wrote a spell book hundreds of years ago practiced. Once again, addressed. Or that the Wood seems like a rather boring boogey man setting up a basic good verses evil relationship. Not even close. If you are looking for a book with a neat bow at the end, this is your read.
Of course, not everything is perfect about this book. I had two major beefs, and both were with characters: Kasia and the Dragon. Kasia is built up at the beginning of this book to be this amazing woman and friend, full of life and personality and color. But we don’t really get to spend extended time with her until after she’s taken by then saved from the Wood. And then she never talks. Well, she does occasionally, but the woman is pretty much a plot device for the rest of the novel. The Dragon, on the other hand, basically acts like he hates Agnieszka and resents her very existence, and he does nothing to hide either of these emotions in the least even after they develop and romantic relationship. I hate that trope where somehow their love means more or something because he is so resistant to it, and this book could be quoted in its textbook definition. Please, writers of the world, take note: emotional abuse is abuse, and your characters deserve so much better from their love interests. Period.
Honestly, the bad stood out to me more strongly than usual because of how much I loved the rest of the novel. Uprooted is just exciting. One of those books that you are almost mad at the next morning because it’s definitely the inanimate object’s fault that you only got five hours of sleep last night because you were up reading until three AM. Agnieszka is a really fun protagonist because she is a whirlwind of emotions and impulsivity and blind courage. And the Wood turns out to be a fascinating antagonist.
Whether you’re just a lifelong lover of fantasy or just looking for an escape during the holiday chaos, Uprooted provides an amazing world with fascinating magic that is well crafted and satisfying from beginning to end.
[Photo credit: Penguin Random House]