This week, it’s fairytales with Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, first published by Del Ray in 2015.
Agnieska lives in a village deep in the Wood, where an ageless hermit Wizard called the Dragon lives in a white tower nearby. The Wood is no ordinary forest, twisted and enchanted it takes people, including the Queen who disappeared in the Wood twenty years earlier and over the years, the Wood has gobbled up entire villages.
The villagers depend on the Dragon to keep the Wood under control and once every ten years as payment for his protection, a seventeen year old girl must leave the village and serve him in his tower for ten years. She must not return to her village for the whole period.
Needless to say, the rumours of what the Dragon does with these girls are rife. The next ten year period is about to start and the time has come for the Dragon to select a new girl and Agnieska is one of the group of girls of the right age.
Agnieska is a little wild and absent-minded, always wandering off and getting herself dirty. She knows there is no chance that she will be selected by the Dragon but her best friend, the beautiful and clever Kasia is the front-runner of the village.
Everyone knows Kasia will be the one. And Agnieska is devastated at the idea of losing her dearest friend to the monster in the Tower. The day of the selection arrives and to everyone’s surprise, the Dragon does not select Kasia but takes Agnieska instead.
Agnieska is taken to the strange white tower, where she is a bumbling failure as a serving girl and the Dragon is gruff and condescending until Agnieska shows her real skill for magic. When Kasia’s mother arrives at the Tower and explains how Kasia has gone missing in the Wood, Agnieska does whatever she can with her blossoming magical skills to save her best friend, with or without the help of the exasperated Dragon.
Now this book is beautifully written in the true style of a medieval East European fairytale or folktale. The language is descriptive but simple and vivid. There are dark woods, magicians, magical swords, spells and potions, kings, queens and brave princes, people being turned to stone and battles between good and evil.
The story is told from Agnieska’s perspective and she is a strong, determined, often pig-headed female character, who is loyal to her best friend and her village. The initial premise is similar to Beauty and the Beast (a story which I am not a big fan of) but this is a story of female friendship and looking after your own local community against evil, set in the lush backdrop of forests and castles.
Kasia herself is not a passive character, she is also as feisty and protective as her best friend but with less magical abilities. I also enjoyed the foppish, rival magician, the Falcon for his sheer arrogance.
And the Wood itself is a key character, this is a book about the environment and how we treat our forests. And posing the question for me, one day will the forests start to fight back?
As I said the prose is beautiful and something to wallow in but it’s not all pretty descriptions, the plot moves swiftly as Agnieska battles against the Wood, in its various guises. It is true to its fairytale roots (pardon the pun) and weaves enough familiar elements to feel like a story I have known all my life.
Although, there was obviously no “market-testing” for the title of this book in Australia. If you don’t know what I mean – see here.
If you like fairytales, feisty women, friendships, magical spells and potions and evil trees, I heartily recommend Uprooted by Naomi Novik.
This book review first appeared as a part of Madeleine’s Speculative Fiction Review radio show on artdistrict-radio. You can listen to the podcasts here.
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