I actually finished reading Uprooted by Naomi Novik quite a while ago. I’ve spent a lot of time mulling over my review, trying to figure out what I want to say and how to say it.
I can tell you that the reviews I’ve read are all positive, and they’re right. This is a very good book, and well worth reading. It has everything that you could want from a novel in that it’s tightly-plotted, full of compelling characters, and the world-building is both creative and coherent. You’d be surprised how rarely that’s true. Written in first person from the heroine’s perspective, Agnieszka has a strong, clear voice that makes itself known from the very first sentence.
Strangely enough, I didn’t give much thought to the book’s title until I was about a third of the way through it. This was a mistake. The name Uprooted encapsulates the heroine’s journey, the backstory of several characters, the mythical underpinnings of the fictional world… I’ve rarely read a book that has a theme so thoroughly and expertly woven into every aspect of it. It’s that theme that I most want to examine in my review.
This is the story of a peasant girl living in a village on the brink of a vast, menacing, mystical forest. the feudal lord of the valley is a magician whose role it is to keep the wood’s malevolent influence at bay. Agnieszka, naturally, gets caught up in this mission when she discovers after much resistance that she’s a naturally gifted witch. The first portion of the book recounts the struggle between Agnieszka and the Dragon as they both attempt to master her magical education. What I love about it is that it contrasts the Dragon’s academic style of magic, of the sort that I’ve become accustomed to as a reader of modern fantasy, with his student’s more haphazard, intuitive style, more evocative of old fairy tales and folklore.
But the major conflict between them is over the ties that Agnieszka has to her village and her people. The magician lives alone in his magical tower, he’s rude and short-tempered and isolated, partly because of his magic and his preternatural longevity, but mostly by choice. Although the discovery of her magic puts Agnieszka on a similar route, it’s a road she refuses to follow. She passes the inspection by the council of wizards, but she insists on keeping her name, rather than allowing them to give her a magician’s title.
These two conflicts also manage to become interwoven. Like a good fantasy protagonist, Agnieszka insists on doing everything that’s she’s been told is impossible, and succeeds at it. That is at the root (pardon) of every mythical hero, not just the ability but the irresistible pull towards doing the impossible. She saves people who are supposed to be beyond hope, takes on challenges that ought to kill her, and antagonizes figures of power in a repeated — and highly satisfying — way. To become a magician she has to give up her home and her personal ties, so she becomes a hedgewitch instead.
It’s not really a spoiler to say that by the end of the novel, Agnieszka has failed to become an ivory tower magician, living for centuries detached from the people around her, including her own far-removed descendants. What’s more interesting to me is that her powerful capacity for attachment, which is both personal and mystical, is both the engine of the plot’s central conflict, as well as its resolution. Gradually revealing itself behind even the most innocuous choices, that feeling of connectedness and belonging damns many characters to certain death. As a heroine, Agnieszka succeeds where others fail, not in resisting the pull but in choosing to examine it to its core.
Everyone has struggled with a feeling of belonging. I know I have. That’s part of what makes Uprooted so compelling. It doesn’t gloss over the dark undertones of blind loyalty, whether it’s to a person or to a homeland. As a heroine Agniezska loves her home in the valley, or perhaps she is merely so attached to it that she’s become insensible to its faults. For better or worse, the pull of the valley never lets up, and she never struggles against it. It’s toxic or it’s beautiful, but it can’t be resisted.
Crossposted to Dreamwidth.