Naomi Novik is perhaps best known as the author of the Temeraire novels. Those are glorious adventure stories about the Napoleonic Wars, but with an airforce composed of dragons. Her new novel, Uprooted, is published tomorrow by Macmillan (as always, I got an advance copy from NetGalley). Novik draws on her Polish heritage and turns her hand to a new world and setting. The novel is heavily rooted in European folk tales in both setting and style.
Uprooted is a YA story about a tomboyish girl who discovers she has a talent for magic. Agnieszka lives in a small community in a valley that is slowly being taken over by a malevolent wood populated by monstrous creatures. The valley is protected by a wizard, known as the Dragon, who lives in a tower alone except for a girl he selects from the valley to act as his housekeeper for ten years.
The novel opens with the Dragon selecting his new housekeeper. Rather than choosing the polished and beautiful Kasia, who has been groomed all her life for the role, he picks her best friend Agnieszka because of her nascent talent for magic. One of the real strengths of the novel is how Novik deals with the friendship between the two girls, and the impact of the Dragon’s choice on both of them. Kasia struggles to adapt to a different future from the one she was expecting and Agnieszka wrestles with guilt and jealousy.
Agniezka proves to be a challenging student of magic. She finds the Dragon’s style of intricate and complex spells difficult. What comes naturally to her is a much naturalistic style of magic that she discovers almost by accident. She is a fantastic character and role model for young women. She finds her own path through life, refusing to conform to the expectations of others or the norms of society. She shows initiative and remains single-mindedly committed to solving the wider problem of The Wood.
Conventional fairy tale tropes are turned upside down in the novel. Princes are neither charming nor heroic, except when it suits their own interests. The aristocracy are bitchy and frivolous.
The novel also presents a refreshingly healthy view of romantic relationships: sex positive, with a strong thread about the importance of consent and thinking carefully before committing to action.
The story is as engaging as its main characters. I found it very difficult to put down because I wanted to keep on reading to find out what happens next. And there are few better compliments for a book than that.
Goodreads rating: 4*