Uprooted: Beware the Woods, Beware the Bitter Wizard More

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Madeleine’s ScoreMade myself finish it (2/5 cool points)

“You intolerable lunatic,” he snarled at me, and then he caught my face between his hands and kissed me.

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a fantasy book, and part of the reason is that I’ve been passively reading Uprooted for several months. I’ve been trying to figure out why it took me quite so long to get through. It wasn’t boring; if it had been, I wouldn’t have finished it. It wasn’t poorly written. In fact, there were some beautiful images and ideas in this standalone fantasy novel, and the author clearly has a wonderful command of language. In the end, the reason this one took me so long to get through was because it’s just paced differently than the books I typically devour. It pulled me ever forward down a wandering path, much like how its young heroine Agnieszka is pulled along in a winding fashion by magic she doesn’t fully understand.

The Dragon–wizard protector of the realm–takes one girl every decade to serve him in his tower. Young Agnieszka might even fear him taking her beautiful friend Kasia more than she fears the dark, evil Wood on the edge of her village. When the time comes for his choosing, instead of perfect Kasia, he chooses frumpy Agnieszka. And in that instant, her life is over, or at least it feels that way until she discovers that he chose her because she’s gifted. Magic dwells in her; now she must learn how to use it from the Dragon himself.

As previously mentioned, the language throughout Uprooted is flowing and lovely. Much like the river Spindle that flows through the Wood, the sentences wind and weave together to take the reader along a journey. Additionally, there are several characters that were highly intriguing, such as Kasia (who goes on a dark adventure of her own) and the formidable Alosha, warrior-wizard woman known as the Sword. The depictions of epic battle sequences are also great, reminiscent of classic high fantasy–honest, brutal, and almost poetic.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Uprooted is the concept of the evil Wood that wants to take over the world. While a dark forest is by no means an “original” idea in fantasy, Uprooted takes the Wood that extra step to make it a character of its own, one with desires and the ability to plan and take action.

Creepy and fun woods aside, this book struggles to make the magic within the world believable. The system has no rules, at least not for Agnieszka. She feels her way through magic, just “getting it,” exhibiting no consistency whatsoever in how she approaches it. Even though I understand the symbol the author is going for here–establishments run by men such as the magical order follow outdated rules while women can just use their feelings to do incredible things and blah blah blah–I just can’t stand it when there are seemingly no rules for magic systems. My fantasy writer friends go to great lengths to create magic systems that are plausible. Without any sort of framework for magic to function within, anything goes. Sounds fun and all, but it feels pretty dang cheap when a writer climbs out of a plot hole with an unexplained, unearned magic trick “because she can.” And such climbing happened throughout Uprooted.

My biggest struggle with this book has to do with the “romance” aspect. Uprooted is Y/A, and with that comes expectations of a romance element. At the center of this one is Agnieszka and the Dragon. I struggled to like–much less fathom what there was to love–about the Dragon. He’s simply horrible to Agnieszka. I don’t mean the “enemies to lovers” trope, where he’s a jerk at first but he’s actually really sweet underneath and redeems himself by the end. Nope, not so lucky in Uprooted. Yes, by the end, we see that the Dragon really does “care” about keeping people safe from the evil forest, but that hardly makes him worthy of romantic love, much less that of Agnieszka, whom he mocks mercilessly. Their attraction seems to be based on nothing more than the adrenaline rush that doing magic together gives them, and indeed, it’s just hormonal compulsion that drives them into bed together for a scene that the book really could have done without.

Uprooted was good for a standalone fantasy read. I’ve been eager to find a fantasy book that isn’t part of a twenty-book series, and this one fits the bill. However, as talented as this author clearly is, I could have done without the Dragon altogether and happily read a book about a young woman discovering her own identity. But alas, this story about girl power ironically couldn’t separate itself from the need for romance.

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