I came across Uprooted by Naomi Novik on a display in a nook in my local public library. I honestly didn’t know what to expect, other than that the cover was reminiscent of a fairy tale and was pretty. I had no idea what I was in for.
TRIGGER WARNING: Attempted rape, gore, murder
Agnieszka loves her valley home in a quiet village. 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 the Wood’s dark forces at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his assistance: Every ten years, one young woman must be handed over to serve him without question.
The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka 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 when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.
The story is clearly set a long time ago, which was evident well before the hint of years was even mentioned. Like some of my favorite fantasy stories, this one blended vague elements of the real world with fantasy. While I recognized many of the names as being Polish in origin (for example, Agnieszka is pronounced ag-NYESH-kah), it took me quite a few pages to make the connection between Polnya as Poland and Rosya as Russia, since I've only heard Poland called Polska in Polish (it’s where my father was from). The two countries are separated by the Wood, a terrifying and dangerous place.
Agnieszka and the other residents of the valley live simple lives, relying on the magic of the Dragon to protect them from the creeping influence of the Wood. But there’s something that keeps these families tied to the valley, and prevents them from just picking up and moving to a place that isn’t threatened by the wood. All they have to do is let the Dragon choose one of their daughters once every 10 years.
Despite Agnieszka (and everyone else) expecting the Dragon to choose Kasia, he doesn’t. He ends up taking Agnieszka. She’s plain looking, clumsy, always getting her clothes dirty/torn/messy somehow, an average cook, terrified of the Dragon, and homesick for the valley that she can see outside her window. She’s endlessly frustrating to the Dragon, but she’s brave, kind, selfless, and smart. She’s sassy and I love her. Somewhere along the way, she starts learning what it means to serve him, and it isn’t anything like what she expects. She never quite loses her inner village girl, the daughter of a woodcutter who is more at home in nature than she is anywhere else.
For his part, the Dragon doesn’t do much to allay Agnieszka’s fears or concerns. He doesn’t seem to be aware of what the villagers think of him — that after being in his tower for a decade, the girls are “ruined,” and always leave the village behind shortly after being released. He’s harsh and terrifying. He isn’t a likable character … at first. As I read on through the book, he grew on me. Initially, I didn’t want to like him. But throughout the book, I realized what was happening, and he was doing his best with what he had to work with.
I’m not familiar with Polish fairy tales at all, and from what I gather, this one isn’t a well-known story to begin with anyway. The pace was slow at first, and I didn’t really see where it was going. But like a snowball rolling down a mountain, the pace picked up until I found myself staying up later and later in hopes of finishing the book. I’d read until my eyes got too heavy to keep going, then start up again as soon as I woke up.
The tension between characters was thick, with everyone playing a role in tension. The Wood was like a character all in itself. But more than that, it became like a tale of understanding differences and similarities between ourselves and others, and learning to live with them.
Since the book was written as taking place many centuries ago, there were a lot of words that I wasn’t familiar with (i found myself looking up quite a few words). There were also some words in Polish that I knew, and a bunch that I didn’t. What I wouldn’t give to have my father around so that I could have asked him to translate for me. The next time I read this will definitely be on my Kindle, so that I could make use of both the dictionary and the translation functions. At times, the language was almost stilted, with the sentence structure coming out a bit strangely. It gave it the feel of a story that is translated into English, or told using the language of many centuries ago, but I’d have to reread sentences to understand them at times.
Overall, I really enjoyed the book, and the message. The characters were well developed, with virtues and flaws to each of them, even the villains. It was a bit gory, but as I get older and reread fairy tales (the originals, not the prettied up, Disneyfied versions), I’m absolutely horrified that any children in prior centuries grew up without being traumatized. I’m glad I grew up in the era of sanitized fairy tales!
People who have sat around with me while I’m reading, especially when there’s a surprising reveal, a shocking plot twist, or an unexpected event often look up in alarm when I gasp audibly. The gasp factor is directly related to the number of times I audibly gasp during a reading, and there isn't an upper limit.
Gasp Factor: 16
Overall Rating: 4 out of 5 stars