YA recommendations with lists, pictures, and frequent parentheticals.
Spoiler Rating: Low
In elementary school you said You need some dragons in your life, and I sort of shuffled my feet and said Sure, maybe, and then I read the book you kept going on about, and suddenly nothing came out of my mouth anymore but dragons.
We spent the next two-and-a-bit decades jabbering dragons at each other, and making simultaneous grabby-hands at dragon-related books, and standing on the beach in the middle of the night with our eyes closed, cuffed by the wind and crusted with the salt and thinking dragons.
So of course when I heard Naomi Novik was writing a Polish-ish fairy-tale-ish fantasy novel that begins "Our Dragon doesn't eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley," my eyes glazed over with need.
Lo, my kind husband presented me with a copy, which I buried myself under a blanket with for two days. I've returned to tell you that it was pretty great.
(Despite lacking in actual dragons.)
“Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers 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 loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. 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 its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.
The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She 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 Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.
Sounds like a quiet little Beauty and the Beast story, with a dash of We-must-neutralize-the-evil-in-the-forest! plot thrown in for spice, doesn't it?
Things This Book Is Full Of
Does Agnieszka stay trapped in the Dragon's tower for long? NOPE.
Can I tell you more without spoiling things that shouldn't be spoiled? NOPE.
Novik's a master of creepy-beautiful descriptions.
Her talent's put to very good use in Uprooted; lots of creepy things go on, and the Wood is seriously bursting with nightmare fuel. (Have I had Wood-related nightmares since reading this book? Indeed I have.)
Awesomely, when Agnieszka (a woodcutter's daughter in a very isolated valley far from the heart of the kingdom) has the opportunity to peer into the kingdom's political arena, she responds in a totally logical and realistic way: with utter confusion and disbelief at both how politicians/courtiers behave and what the hell is going on. Does she prove to be some political wunderkind who changes the course of politics/the kingdom/the world? Ahaha, nope. She's completely flabbergasted, and it's glorious.
The less said here the better, I guess. But yeah, the blood doth flow.
Things I'm A Bit Conflicted About
Her character/personality is awesome, and it's portrayed realistically as she faces a series of increasingly horrifying events. Is she spunky and fearless and always ready for the next challenge? No. No, she isn't. She's human, and scared, and she had a solid grip on my heart from approximately page one.
Here's the problem (for me): Uprooted's told in the first person from Agnieszka's point of view, and something about her voice created a distance between myself and the events she described--like I was reading a (sometimes long-winded) memoir she wrote in her old age, reflecting on the happenings of her youth.
A memoir isn't gripping enough for me; I want to be in the moment with the young Agnieszka, experiencing each surprise and horror as if I'm standing beside her. I love Novik's descriptions of terrifying monsters and creepy places, but I rarely felt the full weight of Agnieszka's fear.
Which is incredibly unfortunate, because this story offers a ton of things to fear.
Oh, man. The Dragon.
He's the super-powerful, emotionally distant, immortal(-ish) wizard who's lord of Agnieszka's valley, and he has a lot going on, character-wise. Such as, for example, his fear of becoming emotionally entangled, and how that fear affects his treatment of his people--and, more specifically, Agnieszka.
Am I fond of cold, heartless people? Nope. Do I enjoy reading about characters who behave in cold, heartless ways for reasons that are slowly unfurled throughout the course of the story? Oh, 100% yep.
I'll admit it was really hard for me to support the growing romantic tension between the Dragon and Agnieszka until fairly late in the book, when we learn the exact reason for his apparent heartlessness. Hurray for him not being a one-dimensional jerk!
That said, he's still a horrible jerk for the first portion of the story, and it took a lot of willpower on my end not to chunk him/the book across the room.
Kasia's kind of perfect, which automatically places her on my Characters To Roll My Eyes At list, but her perfection fits with the fairy-tale quality of the story.
And hey, we do see at least one (fleeting) glimpse of the bitterness and anger and hatred kept at a slow simmer deep within her. She's not quite as perfect as she appears, and I'm glad of that.
There are plenty of other things to praise: the realism and significance of Agnieszka's and Kasia's friendship; the complex and faltering development of Agnieszka's relationship with the Dragon; the variety of antagonists; the lovely worldbuilding. Stuff that I would've gone into if I had written this review a couple days ago instead of waiting until the last possible minute.
But, uh, I did wait until the last possible minute, so I've got to cut this review short.
In sum: although it's not perfect, Uprooted's definitely worth reading (and re-reading, which I'll be doing eventually!), and hopefully the memoir-ish-ness wouldn't bother you like it did me.
All the love,