All her life, Agnieszka has known two things: that she must stay away from the Wood at all costs, and that every ten years, the Dragon emerges from his tower to select a girl to serve him for the next ten years. (He’s not the fire-breathing sort of dragon, but rather the wizard tasked with protecting their valley.) She knows all too well the horrors inflicted when the Wood claims a victim, but she’s not terribly concerned about the Dragon. After all, everyone has known all their lives that her best friend, Kasia, will become his chosen companion when they come of age; Kasia is lovely and graceful and does everything well, while Agnieszka is hopelessly clumsy and not at all ladylike. Too bad wizards don’t always do what people expect…
Agnieszka is terrified to find herself whisked away from her family and friends without even the chance to say goodbye. She has no idea what the Dragon requires of those who serve him; no one stays in the valley when their service ends, so the villagers speculate wildly about what really goes on in the tower. While she’s relieved to learn he doesn’t require any sort of sexual favors (and he’s disgusted to learn that everyone thinks he’s carting away young women merely to fill his bed until he replaces them with someone younger), she struggles to satisfy his desire to be surrounded by order and beauty. Why, oh why didn’t he take Kasia? Agnieszka knows it’s kinda fucked up to wish her best friend had been taken away to spare her getting lectured for dirtying her gown while cooking, but she still resents being unprepared.
As for why the Dragon chose her? Agnieszka is a witch, and he starts to train her to use her power. Unfortunately, she proves to be just as clumsy in this as in everything else; she can handle minor cantrips, but more involved spells elude her to the intense frustration of the Dragon. When he’s called away to deal with an out-of-season chimaera attack across the mountains, he orders her to stay in the tower, but when signal fires are lit to indicate that the Wood is attacking her home village, Dvernik, she gathers up the few potions she knows how to use and climbs out the window, knowing that everyone she knows will be dead or worse before he returns. She and the villagers manage to kill the Wood-mad cattle before they can spread their madness, but when the Dragon arrives just in time to save her from the Wood wolves who started the attack, one manages to injure and infect him.
Agnieszka knows a cure is possible, but has no idea how to do it until she stumbles on Jaga’s spellbook, which had been dismissed as useless for 500 years. The Dragon recovers, but has trouble accepting that Agnieszka can use magic that he can’t understand or copy. He also worries that the chimaera attack might have been a deliberate trap to draw him away and wonders if the neighboring kingdom of Rosya is planning to invade Polnya or if the Wood is trying to take over both kingdoms. Or maybe, horrifyingly, both could come to pass after a whole lot of other things go wrong. Can the kingdom survive if the Wood spreads its influence beyond its borders? Or will they finally find a way to defeat it once and for all? The only certainty is that things are about to get a lot worse, and Agnieszka will have to face increasingly difficult obstacles to protect the people she loves.
In Uprooted, Naomi Novik takes us inside a world based on Polish folklore, including the tale of Baba Yaga. It’s a refreshing change from fantasy that’s blatantly based on the British Isles (much as I love those myths too). I love the integration of magic into their world, and it’s interesting to see how formally trained magicians cope with someone who ignores all their rules but accomplishes things long thought impossible. The Wood is absolutely terrifying in its corruption and malevolence, and while I wasn’t sure how in the world the story would end, the ultimate explanation and conclusion were totally satisfying.
I’m not entirely certain if the book is supposed to be considered young adult; Agnieszka is a 17-year-old girl, which frequently seems to be the main criteria for declaring a book to be YA (and therefore something less than “real” fantasy), but the story is darker and more mature than a lot of YA. While there’s mercifully no love triangle, there is a bit of sexual content. The psychological themes are also pretty mature; I especially loved how she addressed the impact of the long assumption that Kasia would be chosen. Ultimately, I think the story will appeal to both YA and adult fantasy fans, and I highly recommend checking it out. I’m also adding Novik’s Temeraire series to my reading list, because I can’t wait to read more of her work.
I received an advance copy of Uprooted from Random House via Netgalley in exchange for my honest opinion. This review originally appeared at Persephone Magazine.