Much like the terrifying and sentient Wood at the centre of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, this novel reaches out with subtle violence, wraps its tendrils around your expectations and pulls them out from under your feet, leaving you (and your beliefs about what fantasy should be) altered for good. Fortunately for you, gentle reader, Novik is happy to take you by the hand and show you the safest route, saving you from any twisted ankles – or absolute insanity.
The tense stalemate between the two warring nations of Polnya and Rosya is but an abstract threat for Agnieszka, resident of the village of Dvernik, located on the border of The Wood. The most pressing issue for Nieszka, who happens to be Dragon Born, is the almost inevitable loss of Kasia, her best friend and fellow Dragon Born; for the Dragon chooses one girl from the surrounding area, and keeps her for ten years. In return for this, he protects the towns and villages from the constant, malevolent onslaught of The Wood.
Of course, this is not what happens. In a slightly predictable (and yet effective) twist, the Dragon ends up abruptly whisking her off to his lair – uh – tower. Apologies Ann Rice fans, but this Dragon is, in actual fact, a Wizard. He abandons Nieszka at the top of his tower without so much as a word of acknowledgement, leaving her to the realisation that she is going to spend the next ten years of her life locked up with him, not Kasia. Unfortunately (fortunately) for the Dragon, Nieszka is not one to sit quietly and take instruction. Despite, or more accurately, because of his generally terrible behaviour, it is highly satisfying to witness Nieszka’s determination to make his life as difficult as possible. Nieszka’s vibrancy and agency in a world that is constrained not only by gender, but also class (making her pretty low on the food-chain) proves that there is scope for more female-driven fantasy that does not rely on the (boring) idea that 'women can do what men can, but in heels.'
The first third of the book focuses on world building, and brings to life the living, breathing threat of The Wood. It is refreshing to have a completely different antagonist to the usual run-of-the-mill demon/necromancer/manic ruler. The Wood is a genuinely terrifying creation, filled with all manner of creatures and malice that are hell-bent on destroying humanity. Beyond The Wood are Polnya and Rosya (Poland and Russia respectively), who have been at war with each other since the Polnyan queen disappeared with the Rosyan prince (into… you guessed it, The Wood!) These combine to create a backdrop of conflict and tension that feeds into every aspect of the story.
The rest of the book moves rapidly through a complex and sometimes confusing narrative. One could argue that the story doesn’t quite work in its current form, and could benefit with either being trimmed down or expanded into a multi-book series – there is certainly a wealth of material to draw from, both within the fictional world, and the mythological corpus on which it is based. In fact, the only true criticism that I have of Uprooted is its need to be everything at once; both high fantasy, multi-series epic and punchy one-off; YA but also oh-so-adult (some of the overarching themes and scenes in The Wood are highly disturbing); action-fantasy-thriller and romance. In fact, it is the romance aspect of the story that lets it down the most, something that I found incredibly disappointing. For all of Novik’s innovation with The Wood and Nieszka’s system of magic, there is a woeful lack of imagination and diversity when it comes to l-o-v-e. Initially, I thought that there was going to be a queer relationship between Nieszka and Kasia, and I was overjoyed. Those high hopes were crushed, however, when Novik practically forces the Dragon and Nieszka into a tryst that neither of them seems to want. The resulting relationship is both awkward and lack-lustre.
Despite the issues with pacing and with character interrelationships (both of which may have been better addressed in a multi-book format?), Uprooted is still a vastly enjoyable read. Novik’s prose is both evocative and hypnotic, and the way in which she builds the world of Polnya, Rosya, and The Wood is so immersive that it is possible to forget that you are reading a novel. Finally, Nieszka is a character that would cause me much distress if we were friends in real life; which is exactly what makes her such an excellent protagonist to guide you through the deepest, darkest parts of The Wood in order to reach the other side, both changed, and yet exactly the same.
About the reviewer
I am a first-year PhD student exploring the connections between gender and textiles in Old Norse literature at the University of Leicester. In my spare time I like to read (mostly dystopian, speculative or fantasy novels) and knit.