Theirs is a benevolent Dragon—kind really, though distant. He doesn’t eat girls. He simply takes them—one every decade. They return unharmed, but undeniably altered, only to leave soon after for larger spaces. In Agniesza’s opinion a fate that leads outside of her village of Dvernik, her family and friends, is a fate worse than death—worse than an actual fire-breathing dragon. The wizard keeps the Woods at bay however, and the sacrifice of one girl to the wider world every ten years is a small price to pay—even this year, when Agnieszka knows her best friend, Kasia, will take her expected position as the Dragon’s tribute. For the woods are formidable magic, older than the villagers, than the wizard known as Dragon, perhaps than even the land. Agniesza is unexpectedly chosen, despite her dirty skirts and defiant personality, to serve the wizard. She becomes an unwilling student of magic, an unlikely heroine, and the harbinger of an even more unexpected evil. But what really is evil? This is the question at the heart of Naomi Novik’s gloriously imagined world in “Uprooted.”
Agniesza is an unconsciously charming narrator with her forthrightness and self-deprecating humor. She always has mud on her skirts, and acts as a homing beacon for magic (disguised as coincidental misfortune) long before she is aware of her own power. She is often afraid, but never falters in her loyalty and determination to see the world put right. While she is the heroine, she is also the comedic relief. Her interactions with Dragon, confusing, contentious, and infused with sexual tension, remind us of the very best parts of first love. Her struggles to save Kasia, despite the odds, reminds us what friendship is really about. Agniesza, Kasia, and Dragon are as much friends to readers as Harry, Hermione, and Ron.
Agniesza’s discovery of magic, of Jaga’s spell book, and subsequent understanding of spells as directions meant to help a spell-caster pick their own way through the forest, rings true despite stepping outside the accepted realm of reality—as the best fantasy does. The Land of Polnya, while magical, feels like medieval England: women wear corsets and are expected to curtsy and clean, royalty carries a monopoly on wealth, and science and magic are still intrinsically linked. Despite a familiar template, Polnya is a unique place rich with folklore, customs, superstitions, and a political history that reads like a fairy tale inside the fantasy.
Once upon a time bards sang of the great love between the king and queen of Polnya—theirs was the love of ballads. Until the dashing Crown Prince of a neighboring, sometimes enemy, kingdom rode into Polnya and swept the queen off her feet. They ran away together and, pursued by the king’s men, disappeared into the Woods—presumed dead.
Novik ties the past of Polnya with the future of Agneisza’s magic in unexpected and far-reaching ways, with a bevy of twists and an outcome that has no clear winner. Is evil defeated, or simply a misunderstood thing that feels heard? This is much more than a fantasy, a love story, a tale of friendship, or of good versus evil. This is a world that readers climb back out of, rubbing their eyes as they readjust to life without Dragon, without Wood-sickness and Walkers, without Nieshka, Kasia, and Old Jaga. This is a book that plants a little seed in the reader’s heart and takes root there.