Friday, 26 June 2015

Review - Uprooted by Naomi Novik

"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 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 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 the 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.

Wow... where do I even begin in reviewing Uprooted?

Perhaps putting it simply is best. Uprooted is one of the best reads I have had.


There... I said it.

Now to go into more detail.

Prior to reading Uprooted I must admit I was unfamiliar with Novik's work. I had never read any of her Temeraire books, despite noticing them on the shelves everywhere I went. So when I received an advanced readers copy of Uprooted I was initially reluctant to start reading. After much indecision I decided to give it a shot and enact the fifty page rule. If, after fifty pages, it hadn't piqued my interest I would move on and start another book. Simple.

After ten pages I was hooked.
After twenty pages I jumped online and ordered a hardback copy.

After fifty pages I snuggled into my chair and let reality slip away.

Uprooted tells the story of Agnieszka, a simple girl from a tiny village which she loves. Bordering that village is the sinister Wood, a forest that is filled with dark energies and spirits. With every year that passes the Wood continues to creep closer and closer to Agnieszka's home. All that stands between the village and this threat is the Dragon, a human wizard whose coldness is almost as malevolent to the villagers as the Wood. In exchange for his help and protection the Dragon demands a heavy price on the village. Every ten years he picks one young woman and takes her away to serve him in his tower until the time of the next choosing. Agnieszka will be eligible for the next choosing, but expects, like the rest of the village, that the Dragon will choose her bold and beautiful friend Kasia. So when the Dragon chooses her she is suddenly whisked away to an unexpected life of magic, terror, and courtly intrigue.

So what did I love about Uprooted? Pretty much everything.

The story itself is magical and enthralling. One of the things that struck me as I read it is that it feels very familiar. Novik obviously drew her inspiration from a rich heritage of folk lore and fairy tales, and as the story unfolded I was taken back to a time where I sat and listened with awe to my dad as he read me stories from our battered copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales. The next thing that struck me was that whilst the story was familiar it was also told in a way that was both refreshing and unique. This is not your run of the mill vomit inducing Disney fairy tale. This is a story steeped in a long and often dark history of fairy tales in Medieval Europe. People die, often brutally, in Uprooted, and the elements of malevolence and evil are an ever-present shadow looming page after page. Novik also weaves what can only be described as incredible action and adventure into Uprooted. This is what makes it so magical and addictive, much in the same vein as Margo Lanagan's Sea Hearts or Kate Forsyth's Bitter Greens. She has taken something old and familiar and turned it into something uniquely her own and captivating. 

And the characters... wow! One of Novik's real strengths in this book was her characterisation. Like most fairy tales (or stories drawing from that rich heritage) Uprooted is often a character driven beast. This is not always the easiest thing to pull off, but Novik does it wonderfully. Agnieszka is depicted brilliantly, flailing and naive at first but with an inner strength, intuitive nature, and stubbornness that endeared me to her as the story unfolded. Some of the best scenes to capture this were the ones where she discovered her latent and very primal powers, and how different they were to ones wielded by the Dragon. I also adored her evolving and changing agency throughout the book as she grew and was exposed to the world outside of her village. 

And the Dragon (real name Sarkan)... holy crap... he was everything I wanted to see in a wizard. Arrogant, cold, aloof and self absorbed most of the time, Sarkan is what a wizard would be like if such a thing were real (I get real tired of the old, wise, and benevolent wizard trope I must admit). Their relationship was magnificently portrayed, and the simmering tension between the two as they learned to coexist and work their very different magics was handled masterfully.

Kasia is also a wonderful character. Bold, beautiful, and the favourite to picked by Sarkan at the start of the novel, it was incredibly fascinating to see how her story developed after being rejected at the choosing. The complex and genuine friendship that she has with Agnieszka at the start was one of the highlights of Uprooted. It is a natural, complex, and very organic thing that evolves, grows and morphs before your very eyes as the story unfolds, especially as events start to take over and cast them both down dark and directly opposed paths. Both girls are also fierce, strong, and full of soul.. which is a breath of fresh air amidst an often male dominated genre.  

And the Wood! The Wood itself is a character. Full of malice and hate, and with motivations that are not fully clear until the final chapters of Uprooted. The Wood permeates everywhere and in everything that occurs in this book. I literally was on edge every single time it was mentioned, and terrified when it (and its creatures) came into play. It is a dark, thinking, and evil force that nibbles away at your consciousness whenever you draw near to it. In fact Novik really drives home the sense of wrongness (and to an extent a feeling of Lovecraftian horror) when portraying the Wood in this book. I felt incredibly uncomfortable whenever it played its hand, and I read on in horror and hope as characters like Agnieszka and Sarkan struggled to keep it at bay. 

And shit... I don't think I've ever blushed whilst reading a love scene in a book before.. but hot damn... I did whilst reading Uprooted!

Finally, the world building itself has to be mentioned! Whilst Uprooted is a great story about characters and their relationships it is also a story set in an incredibly rich and vivid world. The kingdoms of Polnya and Rosya are described magically, and their burning hatred of each other lingers throughout the story, especially when Agnieszka goes to court and is exposed to the scorn and suspicion of the royals, courtesans, and magicians there. The Wood itself also lurks over these realms, weaving its tendrils into every orifice as it pushes its own agenda. And its creatures, from the Heart Trees through to the Walkers, are dark abominations that will lurk in your nightmares after finishing this book. In fact what lifts Uprooted from being a great book to a brilliant one is its setting. It feels old... it feels rooted in folklore... but it is also dark, brutal, and unique. It is a world that is designed to showcase good people who are struggling against evil. It is also world where such a struggle is depicted honestly as the dangerous slippery slope it often is. Add to all of this a deep sense of primal mystery and you truly get a deep and fantastical setting that draws you in, latches on, and refuses to let go.

Uprooted literally has no flaws in my opinion. It is a beautiful, haunting, and magical tale that will gnaw at your very being from start to finish. Novik will make you laugh, cry, whimper in terror, and cheer in hope as you unfold the magnificent adventure that is Uprooted. An incredible book, and a must read for any fantasy fan. 

5 out of 5 stars.

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