Fairy tales can be rough. We expect a plucky hero, whether a young man or woman, to stand up to the dragon, defeat the forces of darkness, and then go home a hero, but try reading some of those old Grimm Tales and you’ll see those things are creepy as funk.
That’s what makes Naomi Novik’s Uprooted such a treat. The fairy tale is seen and shattered through the eyes of the narrator protagonist. SPOILERS behind the cut.
Young Agnieszka is 17 and growing up in a small, rural village in the middle of the Valley. Her feudal lord is known as the Dragon, a powerful wizard who, once every ten years, take a village girl of 17 up to his tower, holds onto her for a decade, and then lets her go. Said girl is given a bag of silver and sent off to live her life. The girl will insist that the Dragon never laid a finger on her, but for some reason, she opts to leave the valley as soon as possible, never to return.
Agnieszka believes her best friend Kaisa is the next for the Dragon to choose. Kaisa is beautiful, multi-talented, and seems to have the air of the girl the Dragon will choose. All Agnieszka seems to have a knack for is ripping any article of clothing she puts on. Seriously, she rips everything no matter how hard she tries. She’s clumsy too. Kaisa’s mother has been grooming Kaisa for this, and Agnieszka’s mother is somewhat relieved it won’t be her only daughter.
Then the Dragon comes down for the annual choosing and, you guessed it, takes Agnieszka instead. She’s the narrator. I imagine the book would go very differently had she stayed at home with her parents.
See, no one would dare say no to the Dragon. He’s not only the feudal lord of the valley, answering only to the king, but he’s also the only thing holding back the dark corruption of the Wood, an evil forest that seems to be constantly sending out corruption and death. Anyone or anything that wanders into the Wood is generally not seen again. And if they are, you probably don’t want to see them. The Wood is also not above somehow yanking people and animals in.
It turns out Agnieszka is actually gifted in magic herself, and the Dragon by law must try and train her to be a witch. She fights with him. He’s unpleasant to her. She doesn’t know why he does what he does. He doesn’t understand people. She can’t even pronounce most of the spell words he tries to teach her.
And somehow, she learns. Agnieszka apparently works off the idea that she can do things most people would think impossible, even for magic, mostly because she instinctively figures things out and only learns later she shouldn’t be able to do the things she does. The Dragon doesn’t understand how she does things, and he’s the most powerful wizard in the kingdom.
Lurking behind every shadow is the Wood, a hostile, malevolent force. No one knows what or how the Wood does what it does, but there’s a prince looking to get his lost mother out after twenty years, a politically opportunistic wizard all too eager to help, and a poor country girl suddenly elevated to the heights of power without any guides but her own will. It’s about the power of friendship between Agnieszka and Kaisa, who has a strange destiny of her own.
Novik gradually reveals all the answers to all the mysteries, ranging from why the Dragon takes the girls to what’s going on in the Wood, and Agnieszka, highly reluctant to commit an act of violence, is more than capable of finding a way to save the day with her creative instincts. Violence makes things worse in the world of Uprooted. Violence and force will not save the day, but basic humanity and gentleness might.
While good, it didn’t grab me as much as it did friends of mine. But this was a fun read, so I’m giving it nine walkers out of ten.
Don’t know what a walker is? Read the dang book. Those things are creepy.