Many years ago, I stumbled upon a series of books that mixed fantasy with re-imagined history. These were the Temeraire novels by Naomi Novik, and they described what the Napoleonic Wars would have been like if there had been dragons. Temeraire and his pilot create the base for the novels. I did not end up finishing the series, but I found them pretty enjoyable. So when I saw that Novik was getting notice for some new books based on fairy tales, I was intrigued. I picked up Uprooted (2015) with some optimism.
Now, Uprooted has 4.6 stars on Amazon. It won the Nebula Award, was a Hugo Award Finalist, and was one of NPR’s best books of the year. It is obvious that plenty of people really enjoyed this book. Unfortunately, I was not one of them. After finally finding a couple of very negative reviews on Goodreads that were similar to my opinion, I’ve decided that Uprooted is very polarizing.
The book begins with mystery and danger. Every ten years, the dragon chooses one seventeen-year-old girl to go live with him in his tower. She returns after ten years: the town assumes she is “ruined,” and she takes off for lands far away. Agnieszka is both relieved and guilty that her best friend Kasia, who is beautiful and good at everything, will surely be chosen. The dragon is actually a man, a wizard named Sarkan. And it is a great surprise when he chooses Agnieszka and tears her away from her family and friends with no warning.
It turns out that Sarkan chose Agnieszka because he could tell that she could do magic. Sarkan begins to try to teach her magic, but it’s difficult because she sees magic differently. Sarkan’s job is to keep the evil forest at bay with his magic and it’s getting more difficult. When Kasia is stolen by the Wood, Agnieszka runs away to try to help her and somehow manages to tear her away from the evil heart tree.
Sarkan and Agnieszka eventually work together to suck out all the corruption from the Wood that found a home in Kasia. Kasia is saved but somehow has become treelike–strong, unwieldy, and unbreakable. This leads to some uncomfortable politics with the King’s son who wants to save his mother, war with another kingdom, and some time spent at court.
We eventually find out that the evil of the Wood began with a queen from long ago who was unwillingly buried in the tomb with her dead husband. She originally came from the forest and her anger, resentment, and retribution caused all of the evil and suffering in the Wood.
First, I found the premise of this book intriguing. I wanted to know why a girl was chosen, why she was needed, and what happened in those missing ten years. But I was immediately disappointed. I guess most of the girls were used as basic servants, companionship, and a connection to the valley for some ridiculous magical purpose. Agnieszka was different because she knew magic, and Sarkan tried to teach her magic.
I had three main problems with this book. The first was the relationship between Agnieszka and Sarkan. In the beginning, it felt like an uncomfortable romance, where they kept accidentally finding themselves close to each other or in each other’s arms. But it wasn’t remotely romantic. Sarkan was a mean bully who did nothing but verbally abuse Agnieszka. He was impersonal, callous, and he never changed. He was also hundreds of years older than Agnieszka. Bella and Edward from Twilight are a shining example of relationships compared to Agnieszka and Sarkan. Sarkan did not have one ounce of compassion in his entire body. I was surprised when they finally came together.
The second problem was probably the world building, but specifically the magic. It didn’t make any sense. It felt like Agnieszka could or couldn’t do anything she wanted depending on the needs of the narrative. Sometimes she could transport herself to places, sometimes she could talk to Sarkan, sometimes she could create an ox out of dirt to pull their carriage that villagers wouldn’t notice was fake. It felt random and not grounded in any kind of framework to make it meaningful.
The third problem for me was that I did not care about the characters. They did not feel real, and I did not care what happened to them. I could not identify at all with Agnieszka. Her actions always felt random. Characters were often rapidly introduced and then killed off, but there was nothing to make me feel connected to them. There were pages and pages of an epic battle where 6,000 men were killed, but they were nameless and faceless so none of them mattered. You would think that the origin story of the Wood would have to be very powerful because it is the source of so much evil and suffering, but I just didn’t care about a nameless, woman ghost we’d never even heard of before.
By the end of the book, I’d lost all interest in the characters, and was just reading to finish the novel. This was a big disappointment because it came so highly rated and I liked some of the Temeraire novels.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.