Book Review: Uprooted

I first heard about Uprooted on Tor’s Rocket Talk podcast (Episode 54), when the host was absolutely gushing over the latest novel by fantasy author Naomi Novik.  The podcast’s host often gives positive reviews about (some) of the books he mentions, but I have rarely heard him as excited as he was about Uprooted.  Shortly thereafter, Uprooted was again all the rage because Ellen DeGeneres wanted to produce the film adaptation.  Not wanting all the buzz to spoil too much of the story, I decided to order a copy and started reading it right away.  I was nearly finished by the time SDCC rolled around, and happily got my copy of the book signed by the author (she draws a dragon as part of her signature!) while at the convention, a mere few hours after finishing the book.  Aside from being energetic and fun to talk to, Novik also writes a darned good story.  Unlike a lot of the reviews I’d heard before reading this book, I don’t think that reading Uprooted has changed my life in any meaningful fashion, but I do think it is a solid take on a modern fairytale with an interesting plot and a very readable writing style.

uprooted

Uprooted is the story of Agnieszka, a girl who learns she has magical powers after being chosen by “the Dragon” – a mysterious wizard who protects Agieszka’s village from the evil woods.  The Dragon chooses a young woman every ten years as payment for his services.  While most of the young women he chooses tend to act as his personal servant, Agnieszka’s abilities make her life with the Dragon quite different.  Agnieszka must learn to use her magical abilities to help the Dragon to fight against the evil woods, while trying not to upset the political issues of the realm.

The novel contains many of the elements of a classic fairytale – a grumpy wizard, a mysterious evil wood, a young person who must learn to use her powers and save the day.  Where it differs significantly from a traditional fairytale is in the attitudes of the characters.  Agnieszka is no damsel in distress.  If anything she is the rough and tumble tomboy getting her hands dirty kinda of a character.  The Dragon is a bit like Sherlock Holmes – trying to uncover the mystery of the woods while really just wanting to stay in his bachelor pad, and annoyed by the incompetence of everyone around him.  He’s kind of an ass, but does just enough cool things that you end up liking him anyway.  You’ve also got the perfect best friend, the ultimate frat boy, and “rival detective” running around keeping things interesting.

Despite how modern the characters feel, they didn’t seem out of place in a distinctly fairy tale world.  The writing allowed for a perfect blend of traditional tropes and modern ideas to blend and create a rather enjoyable story.  It contains a lot of traditional Polish folklore (some of which has been stolen by other fantasy stories over the years), while weaving a lot of modern issues (gender roles, sexual consent, etc.) into the story without being preachy.  The book is still about telling the story.  The only strong complaint I have is that the pacing of the novel feels a bit inconsistent.  I found the start of the novel quite engaging – despite the limited, terse interactions between the Dragon and his apprentice, this portion of the novel felt fairly fast paced.  However, as the novel wears on and Agnieszka is tested with ever more challenging foes, the length of the battle scenes seems to stretch on a bit more than necessary.  It is one of those things where I can understand the desire to not trivialize death and to give the situation its due, but, on the other hand, when there are a bunch of previously unknown characters fighting a huge battle it is sort of hard to feel an emotional connection to them as a reader.  We see the battles from Agnieszka’s view – not exactly removed from the action, but not always the center of it either.  Which makes sense, but isn’t the most engaging thing to read.  The battles also felt a bit like an annoying roadblock – can we please let the main characters get on with more important things, like magic-ing some evil trees? – which is possibly another reason that these scenes felt so stretched out.  My level of attention wavered from fully engrossed to mildly interested at different portions of the books.  The smaller, more intimate scenes involving just a few characters are extremely well done, but I don’t know that I cared as much when there were thousands of people on the page.

Overall I thought this was a really enjoyable book.  Definitely well worth a read, especially since it is gathering such a buzz at the moment.  It is a fun story with an interesting mix of classic and modern elements.  Highly recommended.

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