Book Review: “Uprooted,” Naomi Novik

 

uprooted coverThis review is spoiler-free and can also be found on goodreads.

It’s true what people say, that old ideas can become fresh and new in the hands of a good storyteller, and Uprooted is proof. This is a unique and unforgettable execution of a familiar premise. It’s as captivating as any of the best fantasies, and there’s a lot going on in terms of character and world building. It deserves all the hype it’s gotten.

Here’s an overview of everything Naomi Novik did right, before I launch into this love letter review:

  • well-rounded characters with fantastic development
  • exactly the right amount of world building
  • perfectly paced and executed plot
  • a well-written romance that does not eclipse the conflict or detract from either of the characters
  • very effective villain(s)
  • emotional impact
  • a lot going on in terms of theme and symbolism; you can fly through this thrilling fantasy in days, but you could just as easily dig your teeth in, analyze and discuss – there’s plenty of substance here

Agnieszka is a fabulous protagonist. She starts off as a clumsy, timid young girl, and grows into a powerful witch and dedicated defender of everything and everyone she cares about. Her dynamic with the Dragon is fun, because she’s constantly throwing him off guard, upsetting his ideas about How Magic Works, and frustrating him, but their personalities and magic complement one another in ways that are key to the plot and to their personal growth.

The romance is a tiny fraction of the story. Some reviewers made it sound like the main plot, and that’s not the case. It’s not romance for the sake of romance, either. It plays a valuable role in building the story’s theme and message, and in helping Agnieszka come into her own. Most importantly, I believed it. Agnieszka’s character didn’t have to be twisted out of shape to make it happen; it didn’t steal focus away from the conflict; and the emotional substance was there. I understood why these characters were suited for each other and the emotional journey that got them there felt natural.

But that’s enough about the Dragon. I want to talk about Kasia and the amazing friendship between her and Agnieszka. I’d argue that this is the central relationship of the story, not the romance with the Dragon. Agnieszka’s love for Kasia is one of the greatest motivating forces in her life, and the girls go through a lot together, including experiences that many friendships wouldn’t survive.

The plot starts out contained and then blossoms, as all the best adventures do, into an epic. The pacing is perfect. The story carried me along so effortlessly that I lost half a day before realizing I’d read nearly 200 pages. Novik writes the kind of prose that makes me envious: deft and distinct, each line purposeful and vivid.

uprooted cover2Though the plot is fast-paced and twisty, the actual events are almost less important than the enchanting storytelling. I won’t give away too much, but within these pages you’ll find plenty of fun magical shenanigans, politics, death, scary creatures, and lots of catastrophe. The villain was everything I could hope for: horrifyingly evil, dangerous, clever, and tragic all at once.

Last, I want to mention how much I loved the magical system described in this book. It combines two common approaches to magic that I’ve seen in different fantasy novels: the ‘science’ approach and the ‘intuition’ approach. The Dragon’s method of using magic is elaborate, long-winded, and very precise. Agnieszka is all about feeling the natural flow of magic – she makes a lot of nature metaphors when she describes using it. When he tries to teach her, he fails at first because his versions of spells are too stiff and complicated for her style. She’s unable to do his kind of magic, and he’s unable to do hers.

All this praise and I still don’t feel like I’ve done a good enough job conveying how special this book is. For me, it’s genre-defining – every other fantasy or fairy tale I come across from now on will be compared to this one, and most of them will fail to measure up. It’s been a while since I picked up a book I knew I’d want to reread some day, but Uprooted is definitely worth a reread or ten.

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