Uprooted is my first acquaintance with Naomi Novik’s writing although she has written ten earlier books. On the back cover, Patrick Rothfuss, a fantasy author, wrote, “I didn’t know how much I wanted to read a book like this until is was already in my hands.” That captures my feeling exactly. It is the fantasy book I wanted, even though I did not know it.
Uprooted is a very organic story that feels deeply rooted in folk history and tradition. While the names of characters and villages are new to me, they are rooted in another language, not another world. Recently, I started another fantasy book and in the first page had been introduced to several made up animals, invented races and an invented world. I felt like I needed to take notes. I paged through, saw all the invention and returned it to the library unread. It was inorganic, forced, artificial. I did not want to work that hard. The opening page of Uprooted was familiar and so intriguing, beginning with “Our dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.” How can you resist?
But it continues on from there. “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 father 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.”
What a wonderful beginning and it only goes on from there, from surprise to surprise. Agniezka is a young girl whose best friend Kasia is the most beautiful in her age cohort—the one everyone expects to be taken by the dragon. Surprisingly, Agniezka is the one chosen, the messy, tomboyish, whose clothes get torn and dirty within minutes of putting them on, who is always disheveled and a total mess. But there is a reason, she was chosen and that sets her and the dragon on a course of magic and adventure that pits them against the relentless and remorseless Wood, an adventure filled with magic and warfare and battles against monsters and men.
I loved everything about this story from the evocative way she describes the setting, the Wood, the river, the villages, the valley and the capital. Her fantastical creatures and the fierce magic of the Wood and the wizards. I loved Agniezka, even if she was a bit thick in the beginning. I also loved the dragon, even if he was a bit arrogant in the beginning. I loved the idea of the immortal wizard learning new things from a scrappy young one.
There is an epic battle between good an evil, but that battle is complicated by many steps along that continuum. People do evil motivated by love, grief, fear or loneliness. Some inflict pain without even knowing the effects, thinking only of the ends, not the means. These very humane motivations create empathy and compassion which is the heart of this story.
I expected to enjoy Uprooted. I expected an adventure, some magic, perhaps some light romance. Instead, I read one of those timeless stories that are rooted deep in our folk history and mythology, something that older and truer than anything by the Brothers Grimm. It is really a masterpiece of storytelling.