Nebula nominee 2016
Naomi Novak is a prolific fantasy writer, but, previous to reading Uprooted, I mostly knew her because my friend Naomi Kritzer, who is also a fantasist, but much less well known, was often mistaken for her at cons. So, while I didn’t exactly have a real or rational reason to dislike Novak, I was always wary of picking up her books.
As I’ve said here many times before, I tend to shy away from any book with a dragon or a sword on the cover. If there’s knights and kings, I’m already bored, wishing for some futuristic laser weapon with which to defeat the wicked witch.
Uprooted, which is about a magic girl who is taken by a dragon and who lives in a world where Woods is capitalized, should be absolutely everything I hate in a fantasy novel. But, I freakin’ love Uprooted and would recommend 10/10 would read again.
Our hapless Agnieszka is relatable. She’s a lot like me: she doesn’t have a lot of useful skills, besides good luck at foraging, and is the type of person who can get smudged and dirty just looking out the window a mud puddle. Agnieszka never expected to be taken by the dragon. She just wasn’t the type. That honor went to her bestie, Kasia, who was beautiful and brave and all the things the heroine of a fairy tale should be.
Turns out? The dragon isn’t at all what we’re expecting either. He’s not the sort who eats maidens. “Dragon” is his title. He’s a wizard who takes local maidens to be his scullery maids–and, occasionally, apprentices. What I love about this is that it turns a fantasy trope on its head: the maiden doesn’t need rescuing from this dragon. He can be kind of a jerk and is, in point of fact, the most powerful wizard in the nation, but, he’s just this guy, you know?
And, of course, Agnieszka turns out to be extremely magically gifted. But, what I loved about that trope is that Novak doesn’t let the magic come easily. Agnieszka is a crappy student because the Dragon’s way of doing things isn’t hers, and it takes Agnieszka a long time to work her way into her own voice, her own ways.
The Wood, it turns out, is actually a living, breathing, malevolent thing… which makes also somehow manages to make all the fairy tale, magical adventuring in this story into something unexpected.
Just last night, I was talking to someone at work about why I like fantasy and science fiction. My colleague was very dismissive of this genre, saying, “Oh, well, I suppose we all need an escape from divorces and relationship issues.” I shook my head vehemently and said, “No, that’s not at all what science fiction and fantasy is like. Good science fiction and fantasy,” I explained, “Has messy divorces AND space ships.”
And, that’s the other thing I came to really appreciate in Uprooted. I felt all along that everyone I encountered was a real person struggling with all sorts of real issues… plus bonus magic.
Even if you’re like me and usually hate fantasy, you should give Uprooted a try. I can’t guarantee you’ll like it, but the magic of the book is subtle and wild and I bet it will ensnare you before you even know what’s happened.