“Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.”
This is the first sentence of ‘Uprooted’ by Naomi Novik, and it is a good sentence to start this review with because it is very telling of the magical atmosphere of this book. This is a fairy tale inspired story, which talks in metaphors and long descriptions of magical woods. Also, it is full of grumpy magicians, curiously happy villagers considering what happens to them, and a witch who forges magic into a sword. But it is also more than a fairy tale because usually, those fall a bit short on character development, of which this book has plenty. Finally, it has an interesting way to deal with magic.
This is the story about Agnieszka, Nieszka for her friends, and how she finds out her own powerful magic while trying to defeat an ancient evil rooted in the woods surrounding her village. At the beginning of the story we don’t know much about the woods though, besides that sometimes people disappear and when they return, IF they return, they are corrupted. Corrupted people first act as the person they were before, but after a while, they kill everything in their path. This threat creates an ever-present shadow under which the villagers live out their innocent existence. To help deal with the threat there is the Dragon, which is the name of the magician living in a tower in the valley. He only comes out when the wood threatens to overtake a village in the valley. Then he does his magic in an angry huff and disappears again. He does not have a sunny personality and the villagers mostly fear him and try to stay as far away from him as possible.
As a payment for his help, the Dragon asks for a girl from one of the villages every ten years. Nobody is sure what the Dragon does with the girls, but when they are free after ten years of service, they are different. They cannot root in their home village anymore and usually disappear to one of the big cities to live out a questionable existence. Lots of stories go round as to what the Dragons does with them, one worse than the other. The fact that the Dragon usually picks the most beautiful and talented girls does not help. Here comes Agnieszka in the story. She is from the village next in line to give a girl to the Dragon. She is not worried about being picked though because her best friend Kasia is beautiful and talented and has been prepared her whole life to be taken. Agnieszka, on the other hand, is very clumsy, messy and seems to get herself into weird situations all the time without meaning to. However, when the Dragon comes to their village for the choosing, Agnieszka is picked to everyone’s surprise. Here Agnieszka and the Dragon’s story begins.
Initially, Agnieszka is very afraid living with the Dragon because she doesn’t know what he wants with her. But the only thing he asks of her is to recite spells with him, which always leave her exhausted afterwards. Also, he scowls at her for being dirty, untidy and clumsy when she spoils his meals. Somehow Agnieszka has the feeling the Dragon expects her to be better at magic and other things, but it never happens. But everything changes when she discovers a small black notebook with spells in them from a mysterious ‘Baba Yaya’. Opposed to the Dragon’s strict formulaic magic, Baba Yaga’s magic shows a way to do magic by directing the magical force with suggestions of the goal. This more intuitive way of magic comes naturally to Agnieszka. This discovery of her own way to do magic shifts the power balance between the Dragon and Agnieszka and makes it more equal and their interactions become more interesting because now they start to learn from each other. Also from this moment onwards, Agnieszka starts to listen less and less to the Dragon and to do her own magic, which causes him to walk off in more angry huffs. Magic is an important element of the story, especially the different ways of doing magic, and how that informs interactions between characters. This is further explored in the relationship between Agnieszka and the Dragon. The two shapes of magic are best explained in the form of different kind of recipes. The dragon’s form is a very strict recipe from fancy five stars restaurants of which you have to follow exactly every step to get the same result every time. Agnieszka form is a family recipe, where you have to feel how to use the recipe, which leads to a slightly different result every time but still undoubtedly the taste you were going for.
One of my favourite things about this book was that not one of the ways of doing magic ‘won’ over the other. At a certain point, Agnieszka goes to the main city of the country where she meets more magicians, each with their own style (such as the witch forging magic into weapons). In the story, each of these styles seems to be a personal choice, and they all contribute in their own way to overcome the corruption of the woods. It felt much more realistic to explain magic as having a diversity like this, rather than letting Agnieszka’s way revolutionize the magical institution with her intuitive magic and to let her be the hero of the story. This also made for interesting character development in the story. First, the dragon was aggravated by Agnieszka way of magic and tried to force her into his own strict ways. At a certain moment, he admitted there was something to her way, and eventually they found a way to cooperate. In the end that is what saved everyone from the corrupted woods. The evil is defeated by many people working together with their own talents, and not by one person galloping valiantly into the distance with a raised sword, who is somehow better at everything than all other persons in the book. This message of the need for cooperation was further emphasised with the most important spells in the book, ‘the summoning’, which can only be casted when two magicians work together.
The writing style of this book was tough. It was written with a lot of metaphors explaining the outcome of the magic, which, for me, was sometimes hard to follow. For example, Agnieszka describes her magic as finding a way through a dense forest. In general, it is not the kind of book you can read through quickly. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but at times I found myself wanting to read on quickly, because the story was so scary, but lost the focus somehow. So this is the kind of book that, on the one hand, is best consumed slowly, but on the other hand, about halfway through the build-up is so intense you want to finish it in one go. Until about halfway the book is all fun and games. After that, it turns out that the corruption is not only in the woods, but has roots everywhere and people start dying in quick succession… This long build-up is not a bad thing though, because through the atmosphere of unnamed horror of the woods which slowly creeps up on you, you have time to become really scared before the actions quickens.
So, in the end, this is a very creepy book about a forest I would never set foot in myself, although I love hiking. It is a beautiful fairy tale for everyone who loves a story full of magic and creepiness and who doesn’t mind taking a long time to digest a story. I promise you this one is worth it, even if it’s only for all the scenes where the Dragon sighs because Agnieszka manages to get herself into a mess again.
Fairytale award for giving us an awesome fairy tale to tell children when they’re old enough to cope with creepy trees
Naomi Novik, Uprooted (New York, 2015)
Bella G. Bear