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Naomi Novik, author of the bestselling and critically acclaimed Temeraire novels, introduces a bold new world rooted in folk stories and legends, as elemental as a Grimm fairy tale.
“Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.”
Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.
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, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.
The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.
But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.
I realize that I developed a reputation for doling out 5 star reviews early into this gig, but I hope I’ve since proven that’s not the case. I’ll admit that I was a bit overzealous in my need to review ALL THE BOOKS that were my personal favorites (and therefore rereads), but as far as new books go . . . this is the first 5 star read I’ve had since Red Rising by Pierce Brown in early ’14.
So Uprooted by Naomi Novik is kind of a big deal.
To me, anyway. Just sayin’.
Imagine a powerful sorcerer living in a lone tower in the middle of a forest. He is over 150 years old, yet still has the appearance of a young man. Every 10 years he leaves his tower to pick a girl from one of the local villages and take her back to his tower. And the villagers allow this, b/c the sorcerer protects them from the Wood.
The villagers don’t know what happens to the girls during their time in the tower, only that they come back changed. Grander, more polished. Educated and dressed in fine clothes.
The girls leave the sorcerer with a sack of silver to use as a dowry, but the girls always leave their former home, using the money to finance a fresh start somewhere else, rather than marrying and resettling into village life.
This sorcerer, called the Dragon, is alone except for the village girl, and even with her, he maintains his distance. He will long outlive her, and the others like her, so he buries himself in order and precision, and the resulting beauty of a task well done.
His nature is taciturn, impatient, and formal, so the villagers, despite their dependence on him for protection fear him, despise him:
I had hated him, but I wouldn’t have reproached him, any more than I would have reproached a bolt of lightning for striking my house. He wasn’t a person . . .
Agnieszka is the antithesis of this sorcerer, this Dragon.
Left to his own devices, he would never have chosen her as his new companion, but Agnieszka has magic, and the King’s Law states that any found with the talent must be trained, and so he does choose her.
And what happens after that is a compelling combination of growth and regrowth, misunderstanding and discovery, fantastical and horrifying, and all of it is utterly captivating.
This is my first Novik, and hopefully the first of many. It sounds trite to say she has a gift—of course she does, she wouldn’t be published otherwise—but I’m saying it nonetheless, and it is a multifaceted gift.
Whether it was the occasional use of repetition for emphasis:
She kissed me again and held me once more, and let me go. It did hurt more. It did.
Or her vivid descriptions:
I had forgotten hours and days by then. My arms ached, my back ached, my legs ached. My head ached worst of all, some part of me tethered back to the valley, stretched out of recognizable shape and trying to make sense of myself when I was so far from anything I knew. Even the mountains, my constants, had disappeared. Of course I’d known there were parts of the country with no mountains, but I’d imagined I would still see them somewhere in the distance, like the moon. But every time I looked behind me, they were smaller and smaller, until finally they disappeared with one final gasp of rolling hills.
Or her ability to capture human nature so completely that you become a part of the story, an observer from within, rather than a simple reader from another time, from another place:
“I’m glad,” I said, with an effort, refusing to let my mouth close up with jealousy. It wasn’t that I wanted a husband and a baby; I didn’t, or rather, I only wanted them the way I wanted to live to a hundred someday, far off, never thinking about the particulars. But they meant life: she was living, and I wasn’t.
And beyond the simple beauty of her words, she creates real, believably flawed
Marek is a prince, not the crown prince, and he has no qualms about making his displeasure on that topic known, and upon meeting him the first time . . . I didn’t know what to think. He behaved abominably, but in such a way that he himself wasn’t absolutely abominable. Just self-interested. But redeemable. Until he isn’t. But wait, maybe he’s not completely horrible after all . . .
It was a cycle that I completed several times, and in the end . . . I’m still undecided.
But he was real. And he was one among many.
Kasia is Agnieszka’s best and only friend. She is also the girl that all the villages expected the Dragon to choose. So imagine my dismay when shortly after she escapes that fate, she is abducted by one of the Wood’s foul creatures.
Now imagine Agnieszka’s dismay.
I’m not going to tell you whether or not Kasia is ultimately saved, so I don’t feel terrible about saying that she is retrieved. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t mention it at all, b/c it walks a spoilery line that I tend to avoid, BUT, the description of Kasia after Agnieszka drags her from the Wood reminded me of a Christian Schloe painting, and I had to share:
Fantastic(al), right? The whole book is like that.
Uprooted by Naomi Novik is part fantasy, part fairy story, and all parts wonder. I haven’t been as enamored by this type of tale since I was child, but this is not a children’s story, and still I found myself smitten like a girl with ribbons in her hair, twirling in her favorite dress in the sunshine. Uprooted is a story that has carved it’s place on the bookshelf-of-my-heart, and I enthusiastically endorse it as my top read of 2015 thus far.