As a long-time fan of Naomi Novik’s outstanding (and recently finished!) Temeraire saga, I approached her 2015 surprise standalone novel Uprooted like a small, sudden waterfall on my whitewater rafting trip. I considered myself familiar with the water, swept up and delighted by the exhilarating rush and tumble of eight books about a dragon and his aviator navigating the Napoleonic Wars. I was happy with the river’s current character and the rhythm of the ride. As excited as I was for a new book and my next beautiful thrill, I was a little nervous about something so different and unexpected appearing from my favorite stream. I had perfect confidence that Novik would tell her new story well, but my beloved Temeraire seemed so perfectly suited to my taste, so massive a sample of her ability and style, and so relatively niche in adult fantasy, that I just didn’t know what to expect.
I needn’t have worried, because Uprooted is breath-taking.
Novik masterfully executes the traditional hallmarks of high fantasy while setting a new standard for modern make-believe. Her relentlessly agile pacing drives you from one high-stakes event to another on the strength of her protagonist’s infectious investment in the other characters and her richly-detailed, dynamic world. It may be the only high fantasy novel I have ever read that sent me racing through it with the speed and need-to-know of a thriller. At the same time, I had to linger over and savor the beautiful magic-working that is Uprooted’s lifeblood. Novik hits all the right notes in all the right places with bewitchingly artistic and sensory descriptions of magic that do so much to define her characters and what magic means to her world, giving her readers a fluid and genuine sense of wonder, delight, fear, and strangeness. For the sheer pleasure Uprooted was to read and the power it had over my heart, I consider it a high fantasy classic in the making. Novik absolutely earned her Nebula Award for this novel, and I would be thrilled to see her Hugo nomination pan out.
But let’s get into the details of my glowing recommendation to see why Uprooted is so good.
Every ten years, the Dragon takes a young woman from Agnieszka’s valley and locks her away from the rest of the world in his tower. Presumably, the girls work as servants during their time there, but the Dragon is not only the valley’s lord but the kingdom’s most powerful wizard. When the girls return home, they no longer love the valley and soon leave it and their families forever.
To everyone’s surprise, the Dragon chooses Agnieszka, our heroine and narrator, as his next girl. Agnieszka herself cannot fathom why, because her only talents seem to be a knack for foraging and getting messy, but she learns that unlike the previous girls, she has magic, and the Dragon means to teach her to use it. However, Agnieszka’s unique brand of magic, “homegrown” and always changing, based on her strong intuition and sense of her surroundings and other people, defies all of the Dragon’s strict books and theories and pushes the boundaries of what he thought possible.
I thought this was going to be the main conflict for the first two chapters, but—spoilers!—it isn’t. The main conflict is far more original (though I do love a good magic-mastery story), more complicated, and certainly gripping and mysterious. Overshadowing the valley is “the Wood,” a supernatural and predatory forest that sends monsters to kidnap people for its energ, or taints them with a zombie-like “corruption,” with the assumed goal of overgrowing and destroying the kingdom. The Dragon has kept the forest and its creatures at bay for decades, but he’s steadily losing a war of attrition. Yet with her unique magic-making style and (instinctive, reckless, single-minded) determination, Agnieszka discovers a way to truly fight back against the Wood, and her counterattack breaks open a war of guile, magic, and violence with a strange power she must face from all fronts.
Alas, to avoid spoilers and a very long synopsis, I cannot do the plot’s twists and turns justice. The text itself is actually quite dense with luscious and precise description and Agnieszka’s endearing and admirable commentary, and then Novik has packed in an abundance of vibrant and diverse world-building content and details, escalating actions, overwhelming obstacles, player agents, changing forces, and high-development scenes. Don’t let the book’s physical size deceive you—the story is an in-depth marathon, but the pacing is so excellent that you sprint from one adventure to the next because you don’t want to stop. Explanations for new information never slowed the story down out of turn, nor did the impressive action scenes ever leave me struggling to understand and keep up with the plot, so I could truly relish the soft moments when Novik invited me to enjoy character conversation and relationships or another stunning bit of magic. Her transitions are so smooth, too, that scenes and settings slide flawlessly from one to the next.
Part of Novik’s success in pacing comes from her seamless connection between Agnieszka’s personal, emotional stakes in her adventures and the world’s characterizing forces of conflict, an accomplished feedback system that builds Uprooted’s detailed fantasy world simultaneously with the plot and Agnieszka’s development. Agnieszka first strikes back against the Wood with the simple, personal goal of saving her hometown and rescuing her best friend. Her growing commitment to defeat the Wood and involvement in the world’s powers-that-be come from her fierce drive to protect her beloved valley and the various people she cares about. Her first-person voice is warm, down to earth, and very honest about her own shortcomings and her feelings of love, fear, inadequacy, and anger, so while we understand the world only from Agnieszka’s perspective and must consider her judgments, we still get a clear picture of it, and her sincere emotional investment in the world’s other players and churning side plots imbues her fascinating world with vitality and tangible influence. For example, halfway through the story we take a sudden turn into a totally new setting with a new set of rules, a new set of short-term obstacles and goals, and a slew of new secondary characters. In less capable hands, changes like this have thrown me for loops as I struggle to follow a sudden transition or plod along as the author includes the physical journey to the new space to catch me up on the story’s new terms. Agnieszka, however, continues acting and preparing to reach the same major goal—to protect her loved ones and stop the Wood—throughout the shift, so we learn about this new side of the world and its role in the story from Agnieszka’s emotional and life-or-death stakes as she faces it and come to care about certain new characters as she gets close to them. My learning experience as a reader felt like a natural continuation and working part of her development and progress in the plot.
The surprising star of the story, however, is the magic itself. Novik’s skill in world-building, action, and seamless transitions was already apparent in her Temeraire work, but while that story also demands attention to detail and thorough systems of fantastic invention, its homage to Regency style and voice precluded opportunities for the modern artistry of dramatic sensory descriptions. Which, I realize now, is rather a shame, because Novik is terribly good at it. I am actually a bit jealous and will probably be studying her for my own work. I mean, listen to this:
It wasn’t the jungle of the first time we’d cast the spell: he was holding back his magic, and so was I, both of us letting only a thin stream of power feed the working. But the rosebush took on a different kind of solidity. I couldn’t tell it was an illusion anymore, the long ropy roots twisting together, putting fingers into the cracks of the table, winding around the legs. The blossoms weren’t just the picture of a rose, they were real roses in a forest, half of them not open yet, the other half blown, petals scattering and browning at the edges. The thick fragrance filled the air, too sweet, and as we held it, a bee came hovering in through the window and crept into one of the flowers, prodding it determinedly. When it couldn’t get any nectar out, it tried another, and another, small legs scrabbling at the petals, which gave way exactly as if they could bear the weight of a bee. (Novik 156)
Lovely. And that’s just the first example I opened my copy to, in which Agnieszka and the Dragon begin to understand how they can work their powers together. The book is full of such beautiful and active magic-workings, which not only affect the action of a scene but convey so much about the moment they are in or the development of Agnieszka and the plot. Agnieszka, too, is creative and intuitive with her magic, so her spells are often fascinating, revealing extensions of her character and relationships and interesting or unusual choices in a genre full of “problem-solving by magic.”
I urge you to take the plunge over this waterfall. Uprooted will thrill you with beautiful prose, racing adventure, vibrant characters, and sensational magic. Go read it now, or you’ll regret waiting so long like I did.