Review by: Mark Palm
Sometimes it’s hard to remember why the people in all of the old fairy tales were so afraid of the forest. It’s easy if you try. Leave your waterproof LED flashlight or night vision goggles at home, along with your guns, gps, forest service maps and cell phone, and walk into the forest at night, alone, with a torch and a knife. That should bring back all of those old fears. In Uprooted, by Naomi Novik it’s even worse. Our heroine Agnieszka, lives in Dvernik, a small hamlet on the edge of The Wood, a forest so bad that whole villages have disappeared there. The main thing that keeps Polnya safe is The Dragon, a powerful wizard who lives in a remote tower. Every ten years he chooses a maid from the village to come stay with him. Everyone thinks it will be the beautiful and brave Kasia, but instead he picks bedraggled Agnieszka.
Even though this book has the feel of a wonderful fairy tale that has somehow slipped through the cracks until Ms. Novik found it, it is by no means a familiar read. The surprises start the minute that Agnieszka discovers that the Dragon, Sarkan, means to teach her magic. At first she seems to be a failure, but after withstanding some sarcastic mentoring she discovers that she has tremendous power; but it’s instinctive and emotional, unlike Sarkan’s endless books of precise spells. Watching Agnieszka come to learn and understand her power, and watching how her mentor comes to grip with her is very interesting, and gives us a view inside of the two sorcerers.
It’s a power she will need, too, because The Wood is more than just scary trees; it is an intelligent entity capable of strategy and long-term plans, and it means to conquer the world. It starts by seizing Kasia, and of course Agnieszka comes to the rescue. From here the plot really starts to accelerate.
Ms. Novik is a skilled plotter, and she did a good job of keeping me off balance. What made it work really well is the characters of Agnieszka and Sarkan. They both fulfill their roles as Sorcerer and Apprentice, but their characters are layered, and deep. I found myself applauding Agnieszka’s impulsiveness, and booing at Sarkan’s imperious behavior. Until Agnieszka realizes that each victory she achieves may hold a kernel inside that will guarantee that the Wood will win. Then each character seems to grow and fit together, the way that their magic does in some earlier scenes. Kasia is well-drawn,tragic and heroic, and Ms. Novik makes The Wood a character in it’s own right, as deep and sinister as any villain could be. Uprooted is a fantasy that has a fairy-tale feel to it, and I mean that in the very best way. I have been a big fan of Ms. Novik and her Temeraire series, and this book is as every bit as good, which is high praise indeed.