Naomi Novik’s novel Uprooted is what fantasy films are made of.
The story follows Agnieszka, who fears that the mysterious wizard known only as “The Dragon” will come for her best friend, Kasia, according to an ancient pact. Unfortunately, it is Agnieszka who is taken to be his apprentice, and she discovers that she is a witch herself.
As Agnieszka learns more about herself and her powers, she also becomes aware of the ever-growing political tension between Polnya (her country) and Rosya. Even more ominous is that fact that both countries lie on either side of the Wood, a place inhabited by an evil entity that takes the lives of anyone who enters. When the Wood takes Kasia, Agnieszka must face her worst fears and embark on a journey that will test everything she thinks she knows and is capable of.
Agnieszka narrates the story, hinting at the past through recollections of old folklore and stories she has heard growing up. Many times the narrative will assume Agnieszka has spoken and another character will answer her, as though reading her mind. This is a charming aspect of her storytelling:
“For my part, I didn’t understand in the least why a chimaera would have a season; surely it was a magic beast and could do as it pleased?
‘Try not to be a complete fool,’ the Dragon said as I trotted at his heels back to the laboratory.”
Each character is described in a way gives them agency, rather than just relating their importance to the story. From all the stories Agnieszka’s mother has read to her, she feels that Kasia is the heroine upon which all fictional heroines are based, rather than the other way around. This is how the reader knows what their friendship is really like. The characters know that something governs the Wood but aren’t sure what; the Wood has motives and is not an it that attacks without reason but a who. Another character states how she feels about the dilution of her identity in her descendants without saying so:
“Most of them don’t know remember that they’re descended from me, if they ever knew. Their skin has a little tea mixed in with the milk, but it only keeps them from burning in the sun, and my husband is a hundred and forty years dead.” She said it easily, as it if it didn’t matter anymore; I suppose it didn’t.”
One of the most important aspects of the novel is the insertion of Novik’s own identity. The settings and the characters are indeed based on Polish stories, customs, and history. Polnya is allegorical reference to Poland, and its inhabitants are shown to be Christian, despite their use of magic; this magical church forms part of the Polnya’s governing body. The spells are derived from Polish, as is Agnieszka’s nickname, “Nieshka,” which she prefers to hear only from family and close friends.
This blending of magic, lore and coming-of-age will appeal to teens and adults alike. Parents may use discretion with children, as the novel does contain explicit descriptions of violence and sexuality. Fans of hit series such as Harry Potter and the Hunger games are sure to enjoy Uprooted. – Brandy Burgess
Also available by Naomi Novik: The Temaraire Series: His Majesty’s Dragon; Throne of Jade; Black Powder War