Uprooted, by Naomi Novik

Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 19, 2015

Summary: “Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.”

Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.

Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.

The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.

But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.

Thoughts: There are so many glowing reviews of this book that chances are my review isn’t going to tell anyone anything they haven’t already heard elsewhere. This is a very good book. Surprisingly good, in many ways. That isn’t to say I went into this book with low expectations, but at the end, I was still quite impressed with just how enjoyable Uprooted really is.

Agnieszka lives in a village by the Wood, and every 10 years, a wizard in the nearby tower chooses a girl to live with him. 10 years go by, the girl is let go, and never returns home. He always chooses someone of talent, of skill, and Agnieszka expects that it will be her friend Kasia who is chosen. But when she shows signs of magic, the wizard, called the Dragon, chooses her instead. That one upset in everyone’s plans turns into something momentous when the cursed Wood starts acting against humans even more than normal, and Agnieszka finds herself caught up in a battle not for her own life, but for the lives of everyone across multiple kingdoms.

As much as most of the characters are written well, I actually find the characters to be one of the biggest drawbacks this book has. Agnieszka’s all right, as far as main characters go, and she shows a lot of growth as the story goes on. She ends up in a far different place than you’d expect her to when you see her early on. The Dragon, also called Sarkan, probably gets the most development after Agnieszka, and stars alongside her in just about every scene. Problem is, he’s not a nice guy for the most part. He’s the sort of man who’d teach someone to sew by throwing a ripped shirt at them and telling them to get on with it. He’s interesting, for sure, but his abrasive nature made him very hard to read at times, because there were so many occasions where I just wanted to reach through the boundaries of the book and smack him upside the head until he stopped being such a jackass.

Interesting to read about, but not the kind of person I ever want to have to associate with in real life.

But other characters really don’t get much development, and they often come across as character outlines rather than characters in their own right. Kasia plays a role through the entire novel, and the most development she gets is when she’s corrupted. Then she just goes back to being a background character who still manages to be in every major event. Same with the prince, with other wizards and witches… The Queen gets a fair bit of spotlight shone upon her, but pretty much only right at the end. Otherwise, she’s just like everyone else; playing a part that needs to be played for the story to advance.

But the story itself is fantastic, even if the characters aren’t. The level of detail that went into the creation of this fantasy world, pulling a lot of inspiration from European history and myth and melding it wonderfully with fantastical elements, was just beautiful, and Novik has real skill at bringing a scene to vivid life. The history of the Wood, the way magic works, it all comes together so very well to create a brilliant world that’s filled with stories, and I want to read more of them. It was enough to make me overlook the problems I had with the characters. More often than not I was distracted by events in such a way that it was easy to just get caught in the flow and forget that the people I was reading about weren’t as fleshed out as they could have been. You know something’s a strength when it makes up for a weakness. Novik’s got some major talent here, and now that I’ve read Uprooted, I’m honestly surprised that I haven’t read anything else by her yet.

Must make an effort to change that.

Every other review has commented on the romantic aspect, and so I feel compelled to as well. For my part, I’m not that fond of romance as a major element, and happily, the romance kept to its place as a side-dish rather than the main course. I couldn’t personally feel for Agniezska and Sarkan’s romance, but that may well be because I just didn’t like Sarkan that much. However, this book is pretty notable for seeming to be geared toward young adults and yet still containing a pretty tasteful sex scene. Most media presentations of YA sexuality show sexual tension and then just stop. Or make eventual sex some big flowery thing that characters debate over for weeks. Here, it’s two interested people getting caught up in the moment, one of them young and the other young in appearance only, and it’s detailed without being exceptionally graphic. So kudos to Novik for walking that fine line; I think that was very well done.

I see no sign that this is anything but a standalone, which is good in that it’s easy to pick up and read without feeling any obligation to continue on, but also bad in that it’s definitely something I want to continue with, were it to become part of a series later on down the road. Tight pacing, a good balance between tense action and calmer discoveries, and a strong compelling plot all combine to make something that’s well worth reading. It’s a quick read in part because you so easily can get caught up in everything, reading for hours until you don’t know where the time went. A fun read, a magical read, and one that’s likely to stay with you for a while.

(Received for review from the publisher.)