Naomi Novik’s Uprooted is an exciting and imaginative novel with a beautiful blend of magic, world-building, and nature.
It’s not as often as I would like that I stay up too late reading a book, remain plagued as I try to fall asleep, and wake up the next morning with the delicious feeling of being emptied out and filled all at once. But happily, Uprooted was one such novel.
I began reading it on Sunday afternoon and finished it by Monday night. This is not to say that it’s a fast read, though the pacing is exciting, but it is a difficult novel to put down once you’ve picked it up.
The Story World
My favorite part of this novel was the world Novik created and the magic within it.
The world grows larger and the stakes increase as we go. While this is expected in a series, I love the way Novik managed it over the course of a single book. The story begins in a small town, Dvernik, on the eve of a choosing ceremony, where one girl will be selected to stay with the Dragon for ten years.
To everyone’s surprise, except perhaps the reader’s, that person is our narrator. We then follow her as she’s swept into the escalating conflict between the people of the Valley, where she’s grown up, and the Wood, our amazing villain.
Unlike the Dragon, who is a wizard and not an actual dragon (and who I immediately fell in love with), the Wood is a sprawling forest, teeming with corruption.
The characterization of the Wood was key to Novik’s blend of ecology and fantasy. It’s also core to her unique representation of magic, nature, and language.
Lit by special forms of magic, the corruption is visible beneath someone’s skin as though twisting leaves tangle in shadows beneath them. Other creatures lurk in the Wood, such as the walkers, tree people (maybe a combination of wood woads and twig blights) who perform the Wood’s will, at times capturing people and dragging them into the wood.
The non-human entities like the walkers, in addition the ancient, long-memoried Wood, create opportunities for readers to imagine different lengths of existence and lifespan, to reconsider the importance and nuances of non-human lives all around us.
Sometimes, especially early on, I get frustrated with first-person narrators. I understand that they need time to change and internally process the world around them. At the very beginning, I was worried about this with Agniezka. But she quickly won me over.
As the protagonist grows more accustomed to magic, she joins a folklore history of witches similar to herself whose approach to casting connects them more deeply with the natural world. If you’re a Dungeons & Dragons fan like me, Nieshka (her nickname) makes for amazing inspiration for your druid character!
Instead of rote spells and complicated formulas, she imagines her magic as a flowing river, or finding a path through the woods, different each time. These metaphors spill across Novik’s prose. Every spell, every image is unique.
This deep connection to nature, especially because of place and her love of where she grew up was extremely moving and beautiful to read. It lent an active, physical sense to Nieshka’s magic-usage. Because of it, even something as simple as her wanderings, searching for berries or picking her way through brambles, lends a sparkle of the connections between nature and magic which is so much more intriguing and immersive than simply reading the effects of the spell.
Another aspect of the novel’s magic that I loved was the play with language behind it. Nieshka describes the feeling of syllables in her mouth, testing them intuitively as well as rolling them around on her tongue to find a spell—the words and the sense—that would fit her needs at a particular moment. She and the other casters in the novel also play with shortening and lengthening spells and their words to strengthen or weaken the magical effect.
It’s impossible for me to talk about how wonderful a novel is if I can’t talk about the characters.
Let’s start with Agniezka. Like Jyn Erso in Rogue One, she’s swept up into events much larger than herself and in many ways, she’s forced to react against them. But this doesn’t mean that she’s without agency. She changes and grows as the novel progresses without losing her roots or sense of place.
There’s a gripping moment when she goes beyond the world of her mountains and marvels at the landscape. Nieshka feels exposed and confused that she’s gotten beyond where she could see them, believing that even at a far remove, they would always be there.
(As someone from the mountains who is weirded out every time I leave the Appalachians for the lower elevations of North Carolina, I found this a perfect description of exactly that uncanniness.)
The Dragon and Kasia
The supporting characters, especially the Dragon and Kasia, Nieshka’s best friend, are powerful and unique as well. Novik plays with lots of common fantasy tropes but twists them in interesting ways.
The Dragon is well over a century old but still looks young. He’s also cranky, elegant, intelligent, noble, thin but strong, and an especially powerful wizard. What’s not to love?
The author beautifully captures the friendship and affection between Kasia and Nieshka. Kasia is perhaps my favorite instance of dismantled tropes. She develops beyond the perfect heroine character who’s beautiful, brave, blonde, and strong.
Nieshka often references the stories she’s heard bards telling or singing, or the way someone’s been depicted in the stories, and these fictional versions of characters hold quite a bit of sway over their behavior.
For those of us who love stories, and especially in this fairy tale-esque world, I loved seeing how central stories and storytelling were to the characters and how they used tales to make sense of the world around them.
Looking back, it was also interesting to hear what hadn’t survived, what wasn’t told in stories. The bardic tales only went back one hundred years or so in time. Other characters, like the wizards and especially the Dragon, are aware of more official happenings that have occurred in the very real history of the land, but many of these have been forgotten by the general populace, especially if someone isn’t directly connected to the circumstance through the living memory of someone in their family or community.
Amazing Opening Lines
As an author, I’m a sucker for an amazing first line, that perfect hook. Uprooted did not disappoint.
Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.”Uprooted
Please don’t read past this point unless you’ve finished the novel or don’t mind spoilers. I’ll never give all the juicy bits away, but some things are too wonderful to leave out of a review.
The Villain: Part Two
Ok, so if you’ve made it this far, I’m assuming you’ve finished the novel or don’t mind me spoiling certain plot elements for you.
So, for our select audience, please allow me to say: I. Love. The. Wood. Queen!
Is she the villain of the whole thing? Yes.
Am I a person who tends to love villains? Also yes.
But she’s especially wonderful.
We learn about her as we reach the novel’s climax and read her tragic backstory. But our narrator feels enough enmity for her, and she’s so powerful, we’re not wallowing in pity, and instead, we can see how she came to be the way that she is. Her past experience wouldn’t motivate just any character. She’s a fighter.
And she’s also a visionary. The wood queen marries into a magical human society who later put her to death. They imprison her and separate her from her former people, a community of tree-people who, when this human population decides to claim the wood for their own, turn themselves back into trees.
We have this incredible juxtaposition between surrender and wisdom, the deep time journey of trees, and the horrible short-sightedness of humanity, even within this ancient magic-casting culture.
The Wood Takes Root
The wood queen is furious when she returns. She immediately sets about protecting her people and preventing them from being destroyed. But she also cannot join them. From this single divide—her hatred, her despair—grows the Wood, an entire region between the two kingdoms capable of overthrowing civilizations in its anger and swallowing towns overnight.
The closest example I’ve been able to find thus far for how incredible this is to read is Yennefer in The Witcher on Netflix, leaned back in the throes of her attempt to tame the djinn, screaming “I WANT EVERYTHING!!!!”
The wood queen is dark. She is corrupt. But what she wants, her anger, her despair, they’re so rich, you can’t help but taste them on your tongue and understand where she’s coming from. And in my reading, Nieshka understands too.
I’m picky with lady villains: they can’t just be evil because they’re female and want power (which should go without saying, but, alas), and I’d also prefer that family or children not be their primary/sole motivation. The wood queen is complex, her rage rooted deep, she’s both human and non-, and the vision of her with her autumn hair and her white mourning gown, her skin the shade and texture of smooth bark, will stay with me long after reading this wonderful book.
Have you read Uprooted? I’ve love to know what you thought in the comments below!
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