Sometimes I worry that my critic brain has superseded all else. Books, films, TV shows that everyone else loves I scratch my head and wonder what I’m missing. I’m poking holes in all of them, asking ‘but why?’ over and over again, and wondering if it’s just me. Maybe it is. Or perhaps I’ve forgotten how to switch off the critic and just enjoy things. Having said that, I’ve always found it difficult when approaching a book or film that’s been widely praised. I expect too much and am almost always disappointed.
That’s how it was for me when reading Uprooted. I’ve read rave review after rave review. After reading Lucy Hounsom’s review on Fantasy Faction, I couldn’t wait to read it. After all, Hounsom wrote Starborn, my favourite novel of 2015 so far. And yet… I just didn’t love Uprooted. That’s not to say it isn’t a good book. The prose is solid, the story intriguing, with decently characterized main characters, and a great pace throughout. But there were too many niggles I had with it, here and there, that added up to a general disappointment. This wasn’t the great book I’d been promised, it was just good. I think it’s official – the critic in me has sapped all my fun.
‘What an unequaled gift for disaster you have.’
Agnieszka lives in a small, quiet village on the edge of the corrupted, evil Wood. Once every ten years, the Lord of the valley, the Dragon, attends the village’s harvest festivities and takes a girl away with him into his tower. He doesn’t take just any girl, he takes the best: most beautiful, talented, exquisite of all the girls in the village. No one expected him to take Agnieszka over her much better looking and more accomplished friend Kasia. As it turns out, the Dragon had no choice in the matter. He saw magic in Agnieszka, and an ancient rule dictates that anyone with magic must be trained. But Agnieszka’s proficiency causes the Dragon nothing but frustration. Her power is strong, though works in unexpected ways, with a far more intuitive nature than his strict, rule-driven style.
When the Wood takes Kasia into its midst, Agnieszka throws caution to the wind, stopping at nothing to save her friend. Where previous it was assumed that saving anyone from the Wood’s corruption was impossible, Agnieszka proves everyone wrong. But at what cost? When the Prince learns of the success with Kasia, he insists on Agnieszka and the Dragon helping him recover his mother who was lost to the Wood twenty years earlier.
The Wood, however, is stronger and more cunning than anyone gave it credit for. Before long, the entire kingdom is under threat.
‘You intolerable lunatic.’
Uprooted attempts to have an almost three-pronged main character focus through the first person narration of Agnieszka. This works quite well with the Dragon, with his characterization delivered in insightful dialogue and interaction with the narrator. He is grumpy, slightly OCD, and withdrawn. But he’s very likeable regardless, as the reader can see how everything he does, he does because he believes it’s for the best. His withdrawn nature is also fleshed out as the novel goes on. It feels natural for a man who doesn’t age and is put in charge of keeping the corruption of the Wood from taking over to stay withdrawn from the people he’s protecting and the place he lives in. Nothing he does ever feels out of character. For me, he was the strongest of all the characters, even over Agnieszka.
Kasia is Agnieszka’s other main focus – her best friend from the village, forever changed by her time in the wood. This strong female friendship has been praised by many critics, but I felt it lacking. There’s very little time given to showing them interacting on their own and just beingfriends. Sure, I understand that this might have pacing implications. You don’t want to spend too much time tediously showing what friends do in their downtime, but we’re basically given crises after crises where we never really get a sense of their long-standing friendship. Even just a few references to some in-jokes, having them comfort each other in a way that only such close friends could have done, would have been great. We also get very little sense of Kasia’s personality. Repetitive descriptors such as ‘brave’ are thrown at us, but she is fairly mute throughout. She does what she’s told and takes it on the chin. I suppose that stoic nature is a trait in itself, but it gives little interesting flavor to her as a character.
Meanwhile, as the narrator, Agnieszka receives the most ‘air time’. Perhaps the reason I liked the Dragon so much was that I sympathized with his frustrations – she is hopeless at learning. She makes stupid mistakes and decisions – she’s the fantasy/fairytale equivalent of the girl in the horror film that goes down in the basement by herself without a torch. I was constantly on the edge of yelling ‘Don’t do that!’ at her. To make things worse, many of the important plot points come from her own internal realisations. But most of these realisations involve massive leaps of logic that have no real basis facts we’ve been presented with. However, they are presented to reader in such a way to indicate we aren’t meant to question her; obviously Agnieszka is right! Well, apologies to Novik as I had to question a number of them.
The issue of logic leaps propelling the plot was compounded with inconsistencies in power and abilities. Spells used or discovered previously not used at certain times (because that would have made the plot much shorter!) or points where Agnieszka is warned she’ll kill herself if she uses more magic (and then when she does, she’s fine, and no comment is made about her being on the brink of death). I had a few quibbles with the structure as well. While I’m a big stickler for Aristotle’s 3 act structure, which Novik does adhere to, it also feels disjointed. It feels more like there are three books in one, with a major ‘boss battle’ and so on at the end of each act. While on the one hand it made the plot more original and less obvious as to its inevitable trajectory, it still somehow felt off.
Having said all that, I should note that I did enjoy Uprooted. It sweeps the reader along on an enjoyable ride, full of action and very little down time. The best praise I have for it is its solid ending. I was very pleased with how Agnieszka finishes the narrative – how at home she becomes with who she is and that she accepts the Dragon with all his faults, without believe she can – or wanting to – change him.
Verdict: Uprooted is a solid fantasy built on fairytale tropes. It’s enjoyable, with an interesting take on magic.
*Note: Thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.