Uprooted - Naomi Novik

Anyone who reads my reviews regularly will know that I have issues with first person narrative at times, particularly in relation to how writers can sometimes struggle with characterisation when using it - just because you're telling a story from someone's point of view doesn't mean you don't have to think about this for your protagonist or anyone else!

 

So let me tell you, I picked up my copy of Uprooted (which has a different cover from the one pictured, mine is cream with black vines picked out in gold on it) with some trepidation given that I already knew this was one of those books. Balanced against that, however, was the fact that I'd read and enjoyed at least some of the author's previous series - which I haven't finished, getting a bit vexed with its travelogue approach to world history - and was looking forward to reading something standalone by her. 

 

The main character in the book is Agnieszka, who is a teenage girl brought up in the Valley, a place where they are under constant threat from the inhabitants of the nearby Wood and where, every ten years, the local wizard chooses one of the girls to live with him. Yes, this is a fantasy book with capitalisations of common nous, just go with it. Nobody knows what this wizard (the Dragon) does with the girls in question but the locals have a bunch of ideas about that and none of them are good - all anyone knows is that, at the end of their time with him, they come out of the tower and none of them want to stick around. 

 

As we start the book, it's time for the latest girl to be chosen and everyone expects it will be Agnieska's best friend Kasia, who is everything a wizard might want in a constant companion - instead, otherwise this would be quite a short book, he chooses Agnieszka who is basically a walking inkspot. We soon discover that his choice is based on the fact that Agnieszka can do magic too, though she doesn't know this and his methods of teaching her leave much to be desired.

 

Agnieszka spends a miserable time in the tower, wishing she was home, until one day the wizard goes off to deal with some issues with the Wood and, while he's away, Agnieszka gets a message that Kasia has been taken by creatures from the Wood and sets out to rescue her. When she manages this, she and the Dragon are pressed into setting out into the Wood once more in search of the Queen, who had been taken into there twenty years earlier and therefore also needed rescuing, even if that rescue mission turns out to be significantly less successful than the previous one. Things start to go downhill from that point and Agnieszka in particular is pulled into life at court, trying to establish herself with magic users who initially think she's only being called a witch because the Dragon has fallen for her (which is decidedly not the case!) and save Kasia's life from a general view that anything involved with the Wood should be destroyed.

 

What I really liked about Uprooted was the way in which two very different ways of doing magic worked together - we find that the Dragon's magic is very structured and rigid while Agnieszka's is much more fluid and experimental - not to mention that a good job is done with the characterisation of pretty much everyone we come across. The Dragon is not the only magic user knocking around and they all are clear individuals with different ideas about everything, as we discover later when people start trying to use Agnieszka to support their particular plans and schemes. There's a strong use of Eastern European folklore all the way through Uprooted, though it took me a while to realise that the 'Jaga' referred to early on is actually Baba Yaga, she of the chicken-legged house. Anyway, this is a stand-alone novel, so anyone looking for an entertaining fantasy read of that kind may well want to check this book out.