Agnieszka has always known her best friend Kasia would be taken by the Dragon on the next choosing day. Everyone in their valley knows that the Dragon will choose beautiful, smart, kind Kasia to serve him for the next ten years.
The Dragon won’t eat Kasia–wizard’s don’t do that–and he won’t hurt her. People whisper about what the Dragon must do to the girls–what any man would do with a girl locked away for ten years–despite every girl’s denials. Either way, she’ll be ruined. When her service ends, she’ll never call the valley home again.
Except that isn’t what happens at the choosing. Instead, Agnieszka finds herself whisked away to the Dragon’s tower. In exchange for her service the Dragon will continue to protect the valley from the enchanted Wood that plagues them with strange creatures and the threat of encroachment.
But the Wood is changing; the creatures are growing bolder. With secrets and strange revelations at every turn it will take everything Agnieszka and the Dragon have together to fight what’s coming for them in Uprooted (2015) by Naomi Novik.
Uprooted is a standalone fantasy novel. This review includes a lot of critical analysis and it will have spoilers from here on out.
Before even talking in length about the story or characters in this novel, it’s important to note that the threat of rape is a constant. The fear of what the Dragon does to girls in his tower looms over the entire first third of the novel while Agnieszka fears first for her friend Kasia and then for herself. Does anything ever come of these fears? Not really. Does that make it any more enjoyable to read about as a key driving force of the narrative? Absolutely not. (Cecelia also talks at length about this–often more articulately than me–in her review at Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia.)
Why am I talking about rape culture in Uprooted? Because it’s impossible not to when the subject of that fear is also the romantic lead. After spending a third of the book bickering, fighting, and downright hating the Dragon (while wondering when, exactly, he will try to take advantage of her), Agnieszka finds herself attracted to the Dragon. In fact, she sees him not just as quick infatuation but an actual potential partner. Which forces me to stress, again, that Agnieszka spent the first third of the novel convinced the Dragon would try to rape her. Convinced. To even consider a romantic relationship between characters when one has spent so much of the narrative literally afraid of the other is impossible. This issue is further compounded by the fact that every seemingly romantic interaction between Agnieszka and the Dragon is preceded by the two having some kind of argument before the Dragon handles Agnieszka harshly and kisses her. What?
Unfortunately, the problems only mount from there.
Have you ever read a story about someone who is supposedly the best at what they do but, in order to move the plot along, they keep making dumb mistakes and are actually more like the worst at what they do? Uprooted is that kind of story.
Agnieszka willfully and blissfully defies the Dragon at every turn–even after she realizes he is trying to help her by teaching her magic rather than punish her abstractly. She ignores his instruction, forgets what he teaches her and even tries to sabotage him. Despite that Agnieszka apparently has an innate magic ability the likes of which haven’t been seen in their country in generations. Furthermore, despite her complete and total lack of study or practice, Agnieszka becomes a magic prodigy by the end of the novel as she creates new spells and singlehandedly sorts out how to effectively fight the Wood and its creatures.
Which leads to my next issue with Uprooted: The complete and total lack of communication throughout the novel. Absolutely every problem faced by Agnieszka and the Dragon could be sovled in half the time if only anyone in the novel talked to each other.
This lack of communication makes Uprooted a novel with poor pacing that drags interminably despite the breakneck action that Agnieszka faces at every turn throughout the story. Readers are told constantly that the situation is both dire(!) and urgent(!) but neither emotion manages to come across in the prose as the story jumps abruptly from one action sequence to the next–often serving only to move away from a plot thread that had finally become interesting.
Uprooted should appeal to readers of all ages who enjoy fantasy novels with rich settings and unlikely villains (and heroes). It should appeal to readers looking to support talented female authors. Yet, for me, Uprooted did not work on any level because I never felt invested enough to buy into anything the novel tried to sell me. Read at your own risk.
Possible Pairings: The Reader by Traci Chee, The Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth Durst, A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge, The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, Into the Heartless Wood by Joanna Ruth Meyer, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope