Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travellers 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 and her best friend Kasia grew up knowing they were living on borrowed time. In Agnieszka’s valley, once every ten years a wizard known as the Dragon takes a young woman away. The two girls know someone in their generation will be picked, and have spent their whole lives bracing themselves for this possible separation. Nobody knows what life is like for the chosen women at the Dragon’s tower — they never visit the valley during their ten years serving the wizard, they don’t talk about their experiences once they return, and usually it’s not long before they leave their homes for good.
This is the price the villagers pay for the Dragon’s help in keeping the dark, dangerous forest that surrounds the valley at bay. Agnieszka grew up thinking Kasia would be the one the Dragon would choose — but when the choosing ceremony comes, it’s not Kasia that he picks. Soon Agnieszka is uprooted from the life she’s always known, and nothing in the valley is ever quite the same again.
I approached Naomi Novik’s Uprooted with similar expectations to those Kate Nepveu describes in this Tor piece. I, too, was surprised when the novel moved away from being an introspective fairy tale reminiscent of Robin McKinley to become an epic fantasy full of politics, court intrigue, and world-changing stakes. However, when talking to Maureen about it recently I realised that to me it’s not so much that Uprooted appears to be intimate at first and then reveals itself to be epic in scope — it’s that it combines the two modes and traditions so very skilfully.
This was undoubtedly one of my favourite things about it. The early chapters are mainly devoted to Agnieszka’s time in the tower: she learns about magic, she gets to know Sarkan (the Dragon’s real name), and she reminisces about life at home and reveals important details about her relationships with Kasia and with her family in the process. Then Prince Marek visits the tower, and gradually we learn about the politics of Polnya, about the Wood’s dark power, and about what Agnieszka means when she says “We were all afraid of the Wood, but our valley was home.” And then, at the end, we return to a more personal focus, with a final chapter where introspection and interpersonal relationships are once again emphasised. What struck me about how Novik managed these changes in focus is that neither set of concerns is allowed to trump the other. Saving the world matters, and so does saving the people you love, and Agnieszka is given room to care about both. Additionally, the novel’s approach to the epic is always personal and humanising, and that too was something I valued.
When I started reading Uprooted, I was strongly reminded of two novels I really enjoyed last year. One was A Creature of Moonlight, which also features dark, advancing woods, a wizard/dragon, and girls who join him in the forest (though voluntarily in this case, which is of course very different). The main difference between these two novels is that the metaphorical resonance of the Wood is very different in Hahn and Novik’s imaginings — but nevertheless they gave me a similar feeling at first. The other novel I was reminded of was my beloved Sorrow’s Knot: the way Bow describes being touched by the Dead is similar to Novik’s description of possession by the Wood. Both novels capture the absolute horror of seeing someone you love slip away until there’s nothing left that is still them in a powerful and moving way. The scenes where Agnieszka visits Kasia in the cellar and tries to gauge whether her friend is still there were chilling and unforgettable.
This brings me to the two girls’ relationship, which you’ll probably be unsurprised to hear I loved. It’s complicated in a very human way, and full of love and support all the same, and presented as unapologetically central in both of their lives. There’s something very powerful about the fact that to rescue Kasia, Agnieszka has to cast The Summoning, a complex magical working that shines the cold light of truth on both of their hearts. Except this light turns out not to be so cold after all: Agnieszka and Kasia expose their less than flattering secret feelings to each other and are met with forgiveness and love. I love stories that highlight the slow building of intimacy and trust outside of romantic relationships, and Novik does an absolutely wonderful job.
Unfortunately I wasn’t as sold on Agnieszka and Sarkan’s romance. The scenes between the two were wonderfully written, and I enjoyed reading about Agnieszka’s growing awareness of her desire. However, whenever I read about a relationship that begins with an obvious power imbalance between the two parties, I kind of want the whole book to be about that. Sarkan takes Agnieszka away from her village without her consent, and for her first few months at the tower, he’s the cold, distant, all-powerful teacher before whose whims she’s obviously vulnerable. These dynamics do eventually change, and it would be unfair to say that Uprooted doesn’t examine the problems inherent to Sarkan’s position and to the fear he inspired in generation after generation of girls (that his goals were nothing like what the villagers imagined is irrelevant here). However, it would be difficult for the level of analysis in a story in which this is only a side plot to ever really satisfy me. Basically I wanted this relationship to be like Kristin Cashore’s Fire and Brigand, when nothing is ever going to be.
I have somewhat ambiguous feelings about stories where the main threat is a dark, dangerous forest. On the one hand, the lure of the fairy tale forest is strong on my mind and heart, and I’ll always have a soft spot for stories that capture both its danger and its appeal. On the other hand, these stories can sometimes cross the line into a sort of inherently adversarial relationship between humans and nature that I’m wary of in the current world. Your mileage may of course vary, but to me Uprooted struck the right chord: the source of the Wood’s darkness is eventually uncovered, and the ending offers the possibility of recovery and balance. It’s not quite Princess Mononoke, but that’s alright because it’s itself.
Lastly, I want to say that I think Liz Bourke put it perfectly by saying that Uprooted is “a generous book, and a kind one” that “holds out hope both to its characters and to its readers even in its moments of horror”. Perhaps my recent craving for hope in my fiction and non-fiction leads me to see everywhere I look, but this seems to me another story that hints at a world where we can survive by looking after each other.
Bits I liked, and which hopefully exemplify what I mean by kind and humanising:
One of the soldiers was a boy my own age, industriously sharpening pike-heads one by one with a stone, skilfully: six strokes for each one and done as quick as the two men putting them along the wall would come back for them. He must have put himself to it, to learn how to do it so well. He didn’t look sullen or unhappy. He’d chosen to go for a soldier. Maybe he had a story that began that way: a poor widowed mother at home and three young sisters to feed, and a girl from down the lane who smiled at him over the fence and she drove her father’s herd out into the meadows every morning. So he’d given his mother his signing-money and gone to make his fortune. He worked hard; he meant to be a corporal soon, and after that a sergeant: he’d go home then in his fine uniform, and put silver in his mother’s hands, and ask the smiling girl to marry him.They read it too: Random Musings of a Bibliophile, By Singing Light, you?
Or maybe he’d lose a leg, and go home sorrowful and bitter to find her married to a man who could farm; or maybe he’d take to drink to forget he’d killed men in trying to make himself rich. That was a story, too; they all had stories. They had mothers or fathers, sisters or lovers. They weren’t alone in the world, mattering to no one but themselves. It seemed utterly wrong to treat them like pennies in a purse.
We walked down to Olshanka together, the road still dusty from so much use yesterday. Yesterday. I tried not to think about it: yesterday six thousand men had marched over this road; today they were all gone. They lay dead in the trenches, they lay dead in the hall, in the cellars, on the long winding stairs going down. I saw their faces in the dust while we walked. Someone in Olshanka saw us coming, and Borys came out with a wagon to carry us the rest of the way. In the back we swayed with the wheels like sacks of grain. The creaking was every song I’d ever heard about war and battle; the horses clopping along, the drumbeat. All those stories must have ended the same way, with someone tired going home from a field full of death, but nobody ever sang this part.