Book Review: Uprooted, by Naomi Novik

I started listening to Naomi Novik when I got my audible account sometime last year and found my way into a 9-book alternate history/fantasy/military fiction series I probably, and stupidly, never would have picked up and started reading in paper form just because of shelf space. Her Temeraire series is brilliant and wonderful and even moreso thanks to the beautiful narration provided for the audiobooks by Simon Vance, and I can't name a series I've liked more in recent memory. So when Nokik's Uprooted, her new standalone fairy tale with all of the praise in the world being thrown at it, came out, I decided it was time for me to give Novik the hardcover paper book honor. I'm not exaggerating about that praise either: from the mind-boggling jacket blurbs from people like Ursula Le Guin, Patrick Rothfuss, Kelly Link, Lev Grossman, Gregory Maguire, and more, to the near universal critical acclaim, to the movie deal the book already has with Ellen DeGeneres's production company, Uprooted is probably already without much competition the SFF book of the year. I finished reading the book last night.

If you're not familiar with the premise of Uprooted, here's a foreshortened version of the jacket copy: "Agniezka loves her valley home, but the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power. 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. This choosing, everyone knows that the Dragon will take beautiful, graceful, brace Kasia. But when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose..."

Spoiler: I really like Uprooted a lot, and I think you would do well by choosing to read it. Jump the cut for my full review. (Note: review contains spoilers)

Before I say what I think, though, here's just a small sampling of some of that acclaim I was talking about:

"I could barely tear myself away from the book, the first time through; even the relative downtimes are full of tension and dread..."

"All of this is great fun. The pages turn and the Kindle screens swipe with alacrity ... If you’re a reader who enjoys smart coming-of-age fantasy adventures, you’ll have a blast with Uprooted."

"I've read a staggering number of excellent books recently, and ... Uprooted has leapt forward to claim the title of Best Book I've Read Yet This Year."

"Novik's use of language is supremely skillful as she weaves a tale that is both elegantly grand and earthily humble, familiar as a Grimm fairy tale yet fresh, original, and totally irresistible. This will be a must-read for fantasy fans for years to come."

Even if I wasn't already a fan of Novik's work, I would have been confident that this book was going to live up to the hype after the first page. Uprooted has, I think, the best, most confident hundred word hook I've seen in a long time, starting with the first sentence: "Our Dragon doesn't eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley."

Are you hooked? I'm hooked.

From a craft perspective, I actually have very ambivalent feelings about the hundred word hook -- there wouldn't be lists of best first lines if openings didn't have a ton of value, but the idea of hanging so much of that value specifically on incentive can really screw with the perspective and priorities of both readers and writers -- but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate seeing it done well. In the first pages (which you can read for free online here!) Novik casually seeds a half dozen of the novel's most important ideas while simultaneously commanding tone, pace, plot, and intrigue. It is the kind of opening I would die to write myself.

From there, she doesn't let you go. There's a point, fairly early on, when the action kicks into gear in earnest, and it never kicks back down. The magic and the action escalate from page to page in surprising but natural ways, whether we're reading a court scene, a sex scene, or a battle scene. Novik honed her action craft writing the expansive battles that pockmark the Temeraire series, and her tactical awareness, clarity of description, and control of scale are all on full display here. I had a particularly good time trying and failing to think my way ahead of the plot, without ever feeling like I'd been tricked in the process.

For all my praise, I could quibble. Others have observed that there is probably enough material for three books here, that the complexities driving the relationship between Agniezka and the Dragon could be more fully realized, and that the explanation we eventually get for the corrupt Wood feels somehow light. For my money, I think there's always something a little unsatisfying about a magic system that relies on language which does not also demand an understanding of that language -- and while it's clear that Agniezka feels the intuitive shape of the powers she's invoking, it's never clear what connection and significance the words themselves and their formations have in allowing her to access those powers. I do think the development of Agniezka's relationship with the Dragon is also a little unsatisfying. While his more horrific qualities and actions are appropriately contextualized within the framework of his power and his self-imposed isolation, it's never entirely clear why Agniezka manages to look past her anger over any of it, except that they have good magical chemistry and that anger held over time is a corrupting influence in the story. Many, many, many readers will ship Agniezka and Kasia because their friendship is so fully realized -- with Kasia becoming both Agniezka's shield and her sword in the book's course, wthout ever losing her own autonomy -- and I caught myself hoping for some kind of polyamorous arrangement at points. I really can't, however, be bothered by a writer creating a powerful and fully realized relationship like theirs which doesn't also rely on romance. That can only be a good thing.

It's the relationship between Agniezka and Kasia that ultimately holds everything together. When Kasia is abducted and corrupted by the Wood, it's Agniezka's desperation to get her back that first clarifies both the depth of their connection and the powerful nature of the Wood's corruption. Driven to purify Kasia by performing a strange and dangerous spell called Luthe's Summoning which casts a light that reveals the truth of things, Agniezka is forced to confront all of the jealousy and anger she harbors toward Kasia, and Kasia likewise. These emotions are powerful, honest, and surprisingly insightful, and the spell is only completed when both characters have faced them. From that moment forward, both women are stronger, Kasia's body and Agniezka's magic fortified alongside each other.

In this way, the entire conflict of the story -- facing down the emotional corruption of the Wood, which slowly eats its victims souls away to nothing -- is played out in microcosm. And what's wonderful about Luthe's Summoning is that it's not the kind of one-off magical tool that appears when it's needed and is never called on again, even when it would make a lot of sense. The Summoning is used at least four times in critical scenes without feeling repetitive or unimaginative, simply because it's the spell that actually works for the situations the characters are faced with, and because it's the spell that specifically taps into the intense emotional honesty that drives the story's larger conflicts, which contextualizes even the most difficult and problematic characters, and which gives the reader her reasons to care.

It's all of this, the mastery of craft, the runaway bullet train of action, the fullness of the characters, and the sophisticated emotional honesty, that makes Uprooted a must-read.