Uprooted is a fantasy novel by Naomi Novik, published in 2015. Inspired by fairtytales and folklore, Uprooted tells the tale of a young woman, Agnieszka, from a valley that’s surrounded by a dark and mysterious forest known simply as the Wood. The Wood is home to many evil spirits and creatures ready to abduct, kill, or destroy anyone and anything that comes close enough to its borders. Fortunately for the villagers, their valley is protected by a powerful wizard who helps them in their time of need and keeps the evil lurking within the Wood at bay.
The Dragon, as he is known to everyone in the valley, is a mysterious and powerful wizard, who despite being guardian of the region of Olshanka, keeps his interaction with the villagers to a minimum, only making an appearance to collect his annual tithing, or when his magic is needed in the valley. For nearly a century, the Dragon has guarded the valley, and every ten years, from among the young women in the villages, he chooses one to live with him in his tower. No one knows exactly what he does with them in his tower, but at the end of 10 years, the young women are given a bag of silver as a dowry, and returned to their families. Except that the women who return are never exactly the same as when they were first taken. Though all swear that they were never violated by the Dragon, all become restless, and eventually move to the city to become independent or to seek a different life.
The story begins on a year the Dragon is to choose a new young woman to live with him in his tower, and though plain, clumsy, and awkward Agnieszka would be among the young women to be chosen from, she is confident that it won’t be her. Also among the young women eligible that year was Agineszka’s best friend Kasia, who, as well as being the most beautiful girl in the valley and was gifted with many talents, was also kind, graceful, and brave – everything the Dragon looks for in a young woman. Everyone, as well as Kasia was sure that she would be the Dragon’s choice. It comes to a shock to all (though not really to the reader), that on the day of the choosing, the Dragon reluctantly chooses Agnieszka to live with him in his lonely tower.
Surprised, confused, and terrified, Agnieszka was unprepared to be the chosen one, but once in the tower, she is even more surprised at the real reason she was picked out by the Dragon. The Dragon teaches Agnieszka things about herself that she wasn’t even aware of, and in the process also learns the dark secrets surrounding her home and the Wood.
Though published in May 2015 and made several popular “best book of the year” list, including NPR’s, I only heard about Uprooted last week in an article about good standalone fantasy novels. Uprooted incorporates Polish folktales from the author’s childhood, and though it’s a story about love, magic, friendship, and loyalty, it’s also a dark tale about betrayal, vengeance, and hate. Despite its heavier themes, gruesome violence and horrific imagery, Uprooted is a light read compared to other fantasy novels; not as serious as Game of Thrones, though not as juvenile as The Hunger Games. Though I’ve read a couple of reviews calling it YA, I think it’s really intended for more mature readers.
The novel, however interesting, is not without its flaws. Its plot, to me is too convoluted, with several different storylines, a few of which the novel would have been better off without. The plot shifts from one focus to another, leading readers in different directions, only to return to the main story, in the end. The author included elements which did not strengthen the novel, and oftentimes failed to elaborate on or explain the more important parts of her story. Being a standalone novel, and not a very long one at that, I just felt that there were too many things going on in the plot, and the story took a roundabout way of getting to the important point of the story.
The characters in Uprooted are nothing special either; the two main characters, your typical young woman, Agnieszka who doesn’t think herself beautiful or talented, and is surprised at every turn of what she can actually accomplish, and a gruff, high and mighty, all-powerful wizard, who makes no efforts to be nice to Agnieszka, insults her at every opportunity, and constantly shows his irritation at her presence – basically a big jerk. The other characters are no better; mostly one-dimensional and not really fleshed out.
The Dragon has been criticized by readers as a despicable man whose behavior towards Agnieszka borders on the abusive – verbally, at least. I’m not making excuses for the Dragon’s cold behavior or choice of words, but to me, his character is no different from the likes of Wuthering Height‘s Heathcliff or Jane Eyre‘s Mr. Rochester. And even those two are nastier than the Dragon, whose bark is really worse that his bite. His bad temper and aloofness, to me, seems superficial, and though not a man of warm words and regards, he makes up for it in his actions and intentions. It’s strange how readers can tolerate, even be attracted to, negative qualities of men in novels that they absolutely won’t tolerate it in real life. Just another classic example of fiction being better than reality.
Despite its shortcomings, Uprooted is a captivating story that shows a different, unique take on magic, and presents love in all its bittersweet forms and complexities. I also must admit that I really enjoyed reading this novel. It’s uncomplicated, it’s simple (despite the convoluted story line. I know…I can’t explain, you just have to read it!), and the story just carries you through its make-believe world. It could be all the bad or depressing novels I’ve been reading lately, but I found myself hooked to this novel from the start; I wanted to finish it quickly, yet didn’t want it to ever end. From the day I started it, it has kept me up reading way past the recommended hours for someone who has to wake up early the next morning and take care of an energetic toddler all day. The last time that happened was when I was reading The Count of Monte Cristo, last September.
There’s really nothing like a good fantasy novel to let you escape from your mundane reality, or from boring all-too-serious novels. Every once in a while, it’s good to read something different and refreshing, to uplift your reading spirit and take you out of your reading slump.
A few months after it was published, it was reported that its movie rights had been bought by Ellen Degeneres. No news yet on what’s going to happen to it, but I’m looking forward to seeing it adapted to big screen. I can even imagine someone like Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, or perhaps Vincent Cassel to play the part of the Dragon (ehem, Ellen Degeneres, if you’re reading this…..).
Uprooted (2015) – Naomi Novik
Del Ray; 443 pages (e-book)
Personal rating: 4/5