Uprooted by Naomi Novik (2015, Del Ray) was perhaps the one book in the past year that I was truly unable to put down—which, given how few books I’m able to read in a year, might not be saying much. But I did manage to finish it in two days, something of a miracle for me, but necessary. Something about this book just grabs you and doesn’t let go.
A moment of background: I’m obsessed with fairy tales, and my family is Polish, and this is a book, as proclaimed on the publisher’s note that came with it, which is based on Polish fairy tales. I didn’t need much more to interest me. And it does deliver.
There’s a quality to fantasy novels based on fairy tales that I particularly love, if done well, and I think it has something to do with a focus on actions, rather than drama. So many of the fantasies I’ve read recently (and given, again, a small selection) have been slow, predictable, and focused on romance or some kind of interpersonal drama. While I came to care for the characters of this novel, it was a novel focused on stories, and how stories build and play out, and how the songs and tales are and are not like the reality of fighting through life. There was absolutely nothing predictable here—at every turn I was surprised, and at every turn, even when it seemed like the novel was maybe going in a predictable (romance-orientated) direction, it turned suddenly again, and I had to keep reading to find out what happened next.
Just when you think the most climactic thing possible has happened, you realize you’re less than a quarter of the way through the book and can’t imagine what could possibly happen next. It’s hard not to gush.
A moment of context slash plot summary: in a small rural village, there lives a girl and her best friend. Every ten years the wizard that rules over the valley takes a girl to live in his tower—no one knows what happens there. Shocker—and this is not a spoiler, it says so on the back cover—instead of choosing beautiful, skilled, prepared Kasia who everyone assumes will be chosen, he chooses clumsy, muddy, run-amok Agnieszka. In the background lies the threat of the Wood, a forest so dark and dangerous it sends out feelers every so often to corrupt and overtake the towns that dare to stay near its borders.
It’s hard to say much more about the plot without revealing too many of the twists and turns. I can say this: it is another book about a young girl who finds her inner power and place in the world, but not in the way you’d expect. It is a book about the fight between good and evil, but the bad guys are not the ones you’d think they were at the outset. The abusers get their comeuppance, and there is a happy ending, but not the one you thought there would be. And if, like me, you love tales of magic and girls kicking ass and fighting their way through frustration and monsters and you’ve also ever felt the strength of the green growing earth beneath you and tapped into it—you will love this tale as well.
Rather then fading into the background, as she so easily could have, Kasia stays in the story as a major character, and one of the coolest. When it turns out that Agnieszka is this crazy powerful witch, rather than saying, oh well I guess I’ll just go back to my normal life, she takes it upon herself to become equally bad ass. Both girls were deeply relatable and likeable, despite having flaws. Or maybe because they had flaws.
The male lead in Uprooted, for example, starts out very Beauty-and-the-Beast; he is rough, uncouth, cold, and let’s just say it, an asshole. I could have gotten annoyed that this is one more tale about how the asshole turns into a prince—but this is just not that tale. It’s not so much that he’s an asshole, but that he’s flawed and has never had any reason to change. And—MAJOR SPOILER ALERT AVERT YOUR EYES—when he does, it’s realistic and not fantastical. It is easy to believe that someone would behave in this manner and learn to be a better person, in a realistic, psychologically flawed way, not in a Disney isn’t-that-lovely sense.
Finally, I love this book because it loves books. The description of magic as a song, or a poem, or a loving recitation of words spoke so nearly to me. Agnieszka was so relatable, and yet so unpredictable. One of the best scenes includes Agnieszka in a library feeling her way through the books to pick out the one that speaks to her (almost literally).
I love the casual Polish-culture references. I love that there is no hard-and-fast good and evil, though it is still, at heart, a fairy tale. Action action action. And good sex. And just enough creepiness. And trees. And basically, I can’t stop gushing, please go read this book.