I got a little bogged down in the Temeraire novels after the first five, and so I didn’t rush to read Naomi Novik’s new fantasy novel Uprooted as soon as it came out. Eleanor gave it to me for Christmas, and I started reading it late one afternoon, paused to go watch the new Star Wars movie again, and finished it the next morning. It’s the kind of book I don’t necessarily want to read all in one sitting, because I like having a wonderful world in my head and wondering how it’s all going to come out.
Except that she’s a witch, I identified with the heroine of Uprooted, Agnieszka, because she attracts dirt like I do. My mother used to shake her head and say sadly, “Jeannie, dirt just falls on you.” She tells stories about dressing my younger brother and my cousin on holidays, and then dressing me last, hoping that there would be some clean places left by the time we got where we were going. Similarly, Agnieszka says:
“my mother despaired of me by the time I was twelve and let me run around in castoffs from my older brothers, except for feast days, when I was obliged to change only twenty minutes before we left the house, and then sit on the bench before our door until we walked to church. It was still even odds whether I’d make it to the village green without catching on some branch, or spattering myself with mud.”
The description of Agnieszka’s teacher trying to get her to do magic the right way almost brought tears to my eyes, so much did it remind me of the few times my mother tried to teach me to cook: “he tried to teach me as best he could, and to advise me in my blundering through….it offended his sense of the proper order of things that my slapdash workings did work, and he scowled as much when I was doing well as when I had made some evident mistake….How is that even working? he burst out, as he sometimes did when pressed past his limits by the obvious dreadfulness of my magic.”
Unlike me and my mother, however, Agnieszka and her teacher—the Dragon, as she first calls him, or Sarkan, as she comes to know him—learn to work together, her improvising and him providing the precision that makes their combined magic powerful.
The book is quite intricately plotted, with the history of Agnieszka’s village, the defenders of her kingdom, the places she played as a child and her best friend from childhood all acquiring importance as the story unfolds. It is a story within a previous story, too, which adds to the significance of the childhood friend’s, Kasia’s, observation that
“strange things always happened to you. You’d go into the forest and come back with fruit out of season, or flowers no one else had ever seen. When we were little, you always used to tell me stories the pines told you, until one day your brother sneered at you for playing make-believe, and you stopped. Even the way your clothes were always such a mess—you couldn’t get so dirty if you tried, and I knew you weren’t trying, you were never trying. I saw a branch reach out and snag your skirt once, really just reach out—“
Agnieszka looks through the books in the Dragon’s library and finds one that looks like a journal with spells that are more like lists of ingredients and suit her better than the elaborate and exact ones he has been trying to teach her. She finds out that the journal was written by “Jaga” (who turns out to be a Baba Yaga figure, although that is entirely outside the world of this story).
Some of the best parts are when Agnieszka finds out the actual facts behind the epic stories she has heard:
“That was when I realized that I already knew the story. I had heard it sung. Ludmila and the Enchanter, only in the song, the brave countess disguised herself as an old peasant woman and cooked and cleaned for the wizard who had stolen her husband’s heart, until she found it in his house locked inside a box, and she stole it back and saved him. My eyes prickled with hot tears. No one was enchanted beyond saving in the songs. The hero always saved them. There was no ugly moment in a dark cellar where the countess wept and cried out protest while three wizards put the count to death, and then made court politics out of it.”
A part I particularly liked was when Sarkan pulled out a book and Agnieszka wouldn’t touch it, causing him to say “yes, I know….It’s a necromantic text; it’s hideous.”
Oh, and the title–it keeps getting more and more relevant.
There is so much to like about this book that I don’t want to tell you much more about it and spoil your fun–the fun is immersing yourself in the world and letting it take you where it will, trusting that your heroine will choose the right path and you’ll be glad you followed her story to its magnificently happy end.