Uprooted is a tale that, in many ways, is very familiar. Rooted (hee hee, I made a pun!) in Eastern European folk-lore, it has a fairy-tale quality that will feel almost natural to many readers. The story also deals with common themes: an apprentice chafing under a close-minded master, good country peasants ignored by decadent urban aristocrats, female intuition dismissed by male rationality. Given this, it would be easy for the book to stumble along from one predictable trope to another, dragging the reader along through the dust and dirt of mediocrity. And yet Naomi Novik invests so much life into her two main characters and describes their world so vividly that all of the old tropes almost feel fresh.
The story centres around Agnieska, who is just beginning her apprenticeship to a wizard called The Dragon. Neither Agnieska nor the Dragon are happy about this but, faced with the malign influence of the Wood that borders the region, they work together to protect nearby villages.
The first two-thirds of the book are compelling. Agnieska’s struggle to understand both her new abilities and new position in life are done really well. This isn’t a comic book superhero backstory full of mass-market teen angst. It is an interesting, well-written and thoroughly enjoyable portrait of a young person trying to figure out who she is. The fact that, in the process, she causes the adults around her massive headaches (literaly, in one case) adds to the fun.
Equally compelling is the constant, malevolent shadow of the Wood. The Wood seeks to destroy all others. Its seeds and scents corrupt plants, animals and people. It tries to spread its borders into human lands, turning farms and villages into ruin. And the Wood is also an utter mystery. No one knows why it corrupts. It is intelligent, it makes plans and sets traps, yet it does not communicate. It only kills.
Unfortunately, much of what is good about this book unravels in the last third. The biggest problem lies in how Novik deals with the Wood. In the last few chapters, there is a big revelation–so big, it could use a whole separate book. While there are a few clues to it earlier in the book, it feels like a massive back-story has been crammed in to wrap up Agnieska’s dealings with the Wood quickly. With the whole book having built up to this confrontation, it comes as a big let down.
In addition, I had two problems with the development of Agnieska’s character:
::Slight Spoiler Alert::
First, while Novik handled Agnieska brilliantly in the first half of the book, a pattern emerged that got frustrating towards the end. Namely, Agnieska was always able to figure out just the right trick at just the right moment to get her through every challenge she faced. Often, that meant she was doing things that others–who had centuries of experience–believed to be impossible. Faced with a task which had only been achieved once before in history, a very inexperienced Agnieska was able to complete it. Multiple times. It was too much for me. Second, Agnieska’s relationship with the Dragon takes a romantic turn that felt “off” to me, partly because of their age difference and partly because of his position of authority over her for much of the book.
Overall, Uprooted was a good read. Definitely not perfect, but still good. It’s a shame that much of the disappointment came towards the end, undermining the climax of the book, but the good parts were so good that I’m still glad I read it. Make of that what you will.