Review: Uprooted

Truth didn’t mean anything without someone to share it with; you could shout truth into the air forever, and spend your life doing it, if someone didn’t come and listen.”

Naomi Novik

uprooted-naomi-novikNovik’s new novel Uprooted has been garnering a fair amount of attention on the interwebs lately, and with good reason. The book is luminously lovely, and exceptionally well marketed: my UK hardback edition is simply beautiful, plus it’s actually signed by the author (!!!!!!).

In a tower looming over a little valley in the corner of the kingdom of Polnya lives the Dragon, a wizard who takes a girl from the villages in the valley every ten years. No-one really knows what he does to them, but when the ten years are up they are changed, unable to stay in the valley. They vanish off into far corners of the kingdom, and their families never see them again.

The villagers put up with this because the Dragon keeps off the Wood at the bottom of the valley, a vast, menacing place which corrupts all it touches. But then Agniezka is chosen (unexpectedly; all the villages are expecting her best friend Kasia, beautiful and self-assured, to be chosen): the Dragon has discovered that she has a gift for magic, and she is drafted into a struggle for the kingdom itself.

As in Novik’s Temeraire series, Uprooted is full of nuanced, careful and very satisfying relationships. In fact – and this is perhaps where the novel is actually better than Temeraire and its numerous sequels – it absolutely turns on an awareness of community, an attention to roots, an understanding that we all are part of a vast network of stories and values and compromises and promises, and most if not all of the tragedy in the novel comes out of a forgetting of that.

But I want to focus on a couple of specific relationships first: those between Agniezka and Kasia, and between Agniezka and her romantic interest (who I won’t name, because spoilers). The friendship between Agniezka and Kasia is deep and layered and complex, containing hate and jealousy as well as affection and respect, and a recognition of all of these aspects, a mutual acceptance of the other person, with all their flaws and fears. More importantly, it’s a female friendship, a thing all too rare in fantasy stories.

As for the romantic relationship: I loved how low-key and yet how fundamental it was. I loved how neither the author nor her characters ever sought to label it, or prioritise it over the kingdom’s safety, or obsess over it. If you’re looking for sweeping romantic declarations, this is the wrong book. But if you’re looking for a layered and complex relationship, a thing that evolves and grows and feels, yes, rooted – a thing that is real and solid and compromises neither party, a thing based again in mutual respect and acceptance – this is very much the right book.

But what I think is best about Uprooted is that although its roots are planted very much in fairytale it refuses to inhabit the black-and-white moral universe of fairytale: it always moves in the direction of complexity and complication. The inhabitants of Polnya live in a world in which their fairy stories have recognisable roots in truth, and yet time and time again the characters find that the truth is actually a lot more complex than the tale reveals. It’s a theme gathered up, masterfully, in a heart-wrenching conclusion which deliberately eschews the simple and violent answer for one which contains shades of grey, an ending which is happy and yet also achingly sad.

If you haven’t picked it up already, I adored Uprooted. Brilliantly paced from its fairytale beginning through to its absolutely perfect ending, full of complexity and nuance, a reminder to us all to stay connected, to remember how to be kind and compassionate and rooted to our communities, it may be my favourite book of 2015. I urge you to read it if you haven’t done so yet.

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