Full disclosure: I’ve only read one of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series and while I thought the premise of them was interesting, at the same time it wasn’t what was really calling to me at that point in my life. (They do, however, remain on my To Read list, miles long though that list may be.) This book isn’t set in that universe and isn’t billed as the beginning of another series, but as a standalone. The idea of that was appealing, but it was the blurb and the “subverted expectation” fairy tale it promised that hooked me. The premise was sound: the dragon that steals princesses is the beginning of many a fantasy. But like so many of the stories I’ve come to love recently, Uprooted turns an already solid premise into a far more interesting story.
“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.
I have some really conflicted feelings about this book. On the one hand, it took me much longer to get through this book (and then to eventually write this review) than I anticipated because the first half of the book was so frustrating to read. Agnieszka is so obviously a determined young woman who takes no shit, but it took so long for her to realize that the magic wasn’t something the Dragon was doing to her but rather she had inside of her that it was never hard for me to put the book down at the end of my lunch breaks. The first half of this book relied heavily on Agnieszka and the Dragon not talking to each other, and thus it was stagnant and dragged for me.
On the other hand… I really enjoyed the second half of this book. That “take no shit” attitude I wanted from the main character finally came to the forefront, and she used it to move the plot of the story forward—and it was that change that sped me through the rest of the book. I loved the contrast between the systems of magic—the “accepted,” rigidly studied magic of the Dragon and the rest of the court mages, and Agnieszka’s more intuitive and unformed magic—and both were beautifully written and thus beautiful to imagine. The permeating murky dampness of the Wood was practically palpable, and the monsters composed of bits and pieces of recognizable creatures were just the right amount of terrifying.
I also loved the romance between Agnieszka and the Dragon—and particularly the way it’s not really a main thread of this story. It’s present, but even the characters acknowledge that there’s not really time for it, that they’re too busy with more important things than matters of the heart. That’s not to say it isn’t there, but I felt the author wrote as much of it as was necessary for the characters. Anything else would have seemed forced on them, and like it would have slowed the story down so as it to make the romance unbelievable.
While I almost always want there to be more—more of the book, more stories, more books in the series—of books I enjoy, I can see how this story lends itself easily to being a standalone novel. At the same time, I can just as easily imagine more stories set in this world of the mysterious Wood, perhaps with the Dragon and Agnieszka as peripheral characters—or even without them at all.
Uprooted is written by Naomi Novik and was published on May 19, 2015 by Del Ray.