Uprooted caused quite a stir when it was published: it was nominated for 6 awards, and it won 4. I’m aware that awards have less and less to do with artistic quality and more and more with the industry of publishing, but still, I was intrigued, especially after I realized fairytales still have lots of potential: C.S.E. Cooney’s powerful short story collection was one of my best reads last year.
Novik apparently was inspired by Polish fairytales – her mother is Polish, her father Lithuanian – but I’m not sure to what extent. Fairytales are fairly universal – there were versions of Sleeping Beauty in ancient China too. The Wikipedia entry on Uprooted seems knowledgeable, and if it’s more or less complete, it seems the Slavic influence is surface level only: names and the sounds of names. That seems enough for a crowd that craves authenticity and deep roots.
Anyhow, Polish or not, the subject matter is straightforward and recognizable: nondescript village girl turns out to be hero extraordinary with the help of an elder mentor. The apprentice quickly outclasses the teacher, and together they take on the evil forces – an evil forest.
While Tolkien’s forest-as-a-character already had ecological overtones, ecology as a theme is surprisingly absent from Uprooted – eco-warriors should look elsewhere for their fiction fix.
The first two thirds of the novel are a joy. Novik’s pacing is great: this novel turns and twists rather unpredictably. The prose is clear and goes down easily. The atmosphere holds great promise. It’s not nearly as dark as Cooney, and it could have been easily marketed as YA too, but that doesn’t matter, as Novik manages to tap into the delight stories like this provide, and makes it look easy.
That’s not to say there are no signs of trouble early on. Especially the philosophical foundation of this book is rather thin. Agnieszka’s magic differs in quality and method from the Dragon’s. All things considered, we are served a superficial, binary story about intuition vs. science. Granted, Novik admits both are needed, but the intuition method is portrayed as stronger and ultimately more ‘true’, better aligned with the Essence of things.
This is annoying and shortsighted for two reasons. For starters: lets see if we can save the planet from climate change using intuition only. More fundamentally annoying is that this is again a fantasy book that creates magic by taking an essentialist position. Plato is not dead yet.
On top of that both methods are gendered: the female intuition vs. the male ratio. While some reviewers have provided trigger warnings for the fact that the Dragon is a jerk at first, the more important gender issue of Uprooted seems to me to be this: that tired old cliché that portrays women as intuitive, in touch with nature, non-rational.
I’m sad to report that Uprooted can’t keep its narrative tension high until the end. As expected, the book’s final chapters are yet another version of the Big Battle. But there’s not a lot of fun to have: the general outcome is predictable, and the details of the finale feel random, rushed, haphazard. Characters’ motivations become unclear – dreamlike, should you be in a forgiving mood. And biggest elephant in the room: it’s repetitive. Really repetitive. Agnieszka & the Dragon cast that same spell again, use that same potion again, and again characters are swallowed by the monstrous evil Forest.
As for plot: what seemed like fresh and original at the start ends as a simple revenge tale.
In short: a lot of wasted potential. Novik took the easy way out. But hey, easy seems to be the winning mode.
Should you read this? If you’ve been following the fantasy scene the last couple of years and have FOMO, you already have. If you’re new to the block and like to diversify your reading with the occasional YA novel: definitely. All others: on the beach, sure – caveats above.