AJ Lancaster: Book Review of Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Sometimes a book draws you in so completely that you only remember you meant to go to bed hours ago after you emerge, blinking, from the very last page. I mean, look at that opening sentence:

Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.

Uprooted, p1

How can you possibly stop there? It’s clearly necessary to keep reading at least as long as it takes to find out that the Dragon is a wizard who lives in a tower, and that he takes a village girl to serve him every ten years. And once you’re that far in, well, if you’re me you won’t be able to stop, even if it is after midnight. Who needs sleep, anyway?

Uprooted isn’t technically a fairytale retelling, butit certainly feels like one. It’s partly the dreamy prose and partly the setting, which is alive and magical and sinister in the form of the malevolent Wood. Uprooted is somehow simultaneously epic fantasy about saving the world and small-scale cozy fantasy (that’s a genre, right?) about the comforts of home. I love it fiercely. I own multiple copies and have re-read it countless times.

My copy of Uprooted with bonus cameo by my cat Kestrel

So what makes me love it so much?

Let’s start with our heroine, Agnieszka (Ag-NYESH-kah). She’s messy, stubborn, big-hearted, uneducated but intelligent. The story is told entirely in her voice, and her arc forms the story’s core as we watch her grow from awkward village girl to self-assured sorceress.

She’s also clumsy and frequently spills things, and it’s so nice to see the non-adorable consequences of this represented in fiction. 

“How do you do this to yourself?” he asked me, almost marveling, one day when I wandered in with a clump of rice pudding in my hair—I had accidentally hit a spoon with my elbow and flung some into the air—and a huge streak of jam going all the way down my front of beautiful cream silk.

Uprooted, p36

(It should be mentioned at this point that our grumpy hero, Sarkan aka The Dragon, is a neat freak, and, yes, the conflict between him and our messy heroine on this front is just as amusing as one could hope for.)

It’s also a relief to find a heroine who, despite her magical qualities, doesn’t distance herself from other women or define herself as being “not like other girls”, which is a trope that hugely annoys me. Agnieszka’s best friend is the beautiful, confident, poised Kasia, and in a lesser book they’d be rivals. In Uprooted, a lot of the plot is driven by the strength of their friendship. 

The other central relationship in Uprootedis the slow-burn romance between the Dragon and Agnieszka. It’s that good old trope of enemies-to-lovers. When we first meet the Dragon, he is cold and callous, removing Agnieszka from her village and imprisoning her in his tower—and Agnieszka fears him. But as the story unfolds, we learn that the Dragon isn’t the villain of this tale at all, despite his prickly exterior.  

These two are chalk and cheese, and it’s very satisfying to watch as they come to understand each other and realize that ultimately they share the same goal of saving humankind from the relentless evil of the Wood (more on that later).

Some readers may find the Dragon’s grouchiness not to their taste, but for me his actions speak louder than words—and as Agnieszka quickly realizes, his bark is much worse than his bite.

The Dragon tries to teach Agnieszka magic, and he’s soannoyed by how unpredictable her magic is. Magic should be sharply defined, methodical, and work the same way every time! But Agnieszka’s magic is organic, intuitive, and context-dependent—and often fails spectacularly during their lessons.

[After Agnieszka has accidentally set fire to the guest bedroom]

He roared at me furiously for ten minutes after he finally managed to put out the sulky and determined fire, calling me a witless muttonheaded spawn of pig farmers—“My father’s a woodcutter,” I said—“Of axe-swinging lummocks!” he snarled.

But even so, I wasn’t afraid anymore. He only spluttered himself into exhaustion and then sent me away, and I didn’t mind his shouting at all, now I knew there was no teeth in it to rend me.

Uprooted, p54

Initially, Agnieszka doesn’t want to learn magic, doesn’t want to accept that she can’t go back to her old life. Her emotional journey is one of learning to step up and embrace her new self, whilst not sacrificing her values and her deep connection to her home village.  

Because home, the sense of being rooted (ha, see what I did there?) to a place, is ultimately what Uprootedis about. This also probably explains why it appeals to me so strongly, since I like to write about magically sentient places. There’s something powerful about home, the place that you both can and can’t return to after you’ve gone away and changed.

Which brings me to… the Wood.

It’s hard to make a place into a compelling antagonist, but Naomi Novik has managed it in the eldritch horror that is the Wood. Its evil lies not just in the monsters that roam beneath its branches, but in how it deliberately taints people it comes into contact with and uses them to manipulate events outside its borders, inciting deaths, wars, and misery. The central mystery of the novel is why the Wood hates humanity—and what created it in the first place. 

Both Agnieszka and the Dragon have to grow and change in order to have any chance of defeating the Wood, creating magic stronger than the sum of their parts. 

“Try and match it,” he said absently, his fingers moving slightly, and by lurching steps we brought out illusions closer together until it was nearly impossible to tell them from one another, and then he said, “Ah,” suddenly, just as I began to glimpse his spell: almost exactly like that strange clockwork in the middle of his table, all shining moving parts. On an impulse I tried to align our workings: I envisioned his like the water-wheel of a mill, and mine the rushing stream driving it around. “What are you—” he began, and then abruptly we had only a single rose, and it began to grow.

Uprooted, p95

There’s also wars, court politics, and magical monsters. What more could you ask for?

TL;DR list:

  • Enemies to lovers.
  • Magic training montages.
  • Strong female friendship.
  • Evil sentient wood.
  • Fairytale-like atmosphere.

Have you read Uprooted? What did you think?

About the Author

AJ Lancaster lives in the windy coastal city of Wellington, New Zealand, with two ridiculous cats and many novelty mugs. She writes fantasy of the whimsical rather than grimdark variety.

Her Stariel Quartet is romantic gaslamp fantasy, set on a magical sentient estate in a world where the fae are only stories…until now.

Reach her at:

The first book in the Stariel Quartet is The Lord of Stariel:

The Lord of Stariel is dead. Long live the Lord of Stariel. Whoever that is.

Everyone knows who the magical estate will choose for its next ruler. Or do they?

Will it be the lord’s eldest son, who he despised? His favourite nephew, with the strongest magical land-sense? His scandalous daughter, who ran away from home years ago to study illusion?

Hetta knows it won’t be her, and she’s glad of it. Returning home for her father’s funeral, all Hetta has to do is survive the family drama and avoid entanglements with irritatingly attractive local men until the Choosing. Then she can leave.

But whoever Stariel chooses will have bigger problems than eccentric relatives to deal with.

Winged, beautifully deadly problems. 

For the first time in centuries, the fae are returning to the Mortal Realm, and only the Lord of Stariel can keep the estate safe. In theory.

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