A Fine Example of a Fairytale: Naomi Novik’s ‘Uprooted’

Uprooted-Cover-2Agnieszka lives on the edge of a forest overwrought with dark magic that slowly creeps into her villages long the border. The dark Wood is held back by a wizard called the Dragon and every ten years he takes a girl from one of the villages to serve in his tower. The Dragon is a foreboding man, although he protects the people from the Wood, he’s cold and ageless. No one knows what happens to the girls who serve him, other than that they come out different and go away to never return. Agniezka and her friend Kasia were born in a taking year and ever since they were young, prepared themselves for the possibility of being taken to the Dragon’s tower. Everyone thought that Kasia would be chosen, due to her beauty, charm, and intelligence, but Agniezka is selected instead.

Astounded after being chosen, Agniezka not only serves the Dragon, but also becomes his magical apprentice. For Agniezka brims with a type of wild, powerful magic that hasn’t been seen since the likes of Baba Yaga. While she is hesitant to learn how to wield her new powers, she quickly becomes competent and a new force to hold back the Wood that is encroaching more and more on the villages each day. She soon becomes pulled into a web of magic, unsettled history, politics, and unresolved passion.

Naomi Novik is the celebrated writer of the Temeraire series, an alternate history about what would happen in dragons fought during the Napoleonic Wars. She takes a different spin into fantasy by adapting a Polish fairytale with her usual wit and imagination. Novik is an expert at meshing reality with fantastical facts, but for Uprooted she draws more on the fairytale genre and traditional fantasy tropes, yet she presents them in an entirely unique and original way.

Most fairytales adapted for a mature audience are adapted from the Grimm library or have flittered across the screen as a Disney film on some occasion or another, but the Polish fairytale library remains a verdant wellspring for inspiration and new ideas.   She starts with a traditional heroine that has her own endearing quirks with pieces of spitfire, such as never being able to stay clean and never getting lost. Agniezka is endearing as an everyday girl, who the reader immediately identifies with, but also acknowledges that her differences will draw the Dragon’s attention. The Dragon, also known as Sarken, starts out as a heartless curmudgeon, but as his character develops his rough edges smooth over yet still remain sharp. There is, of course, a prince who plays strongly into the plot and he fits the trope of the standard prince on a white horse, including arrogance and self-motivated. Kasia proves to be an interesting addition to the story as she appears to be a one-off character that slides her way back into the plot and becomes more endearing as the pages turn.

The true wonder of Uprooted is the actually world Novik created. It has the essence of a familiar fairytale yet some references and the type of magic used are different from the standard fantasy novel. The Wood is a central concept as it fulfills the recognizable “dark wood” setting, but Novik doesn’t set aside a block of text for exposition on the Wood. She instead weaves details into the plot relevant to how Agniezka learns about her role in the greater battle against the Wood, the deeper she gets into the war the more is revealed to her. This is an extremely hard type of writing to pull off without confusing the reader. The writer usually needs to use an omniscient perspective when constructing a world as detailed as Agniezka’s, but Novik throws the reader in and takes the rules as established. It also helps that as a fantasy novel certain magical elements are expected to occur.

Even more astounding is that Novik has several climatic sequences that would usually be the focus one entire book. Uprooted has a quick pace as these sequences are built up, then they pass on, moving onto the next as Novik builds a storyline that meshes into something huge. Don’t think that she sacrifices character development for moving the plot forward, everything is well thought and detailed.

Uprooted could quite possibly be the start of a new brand of fairytale literature, one that pulls from familiar elements, but reimagines them in way that is delicious to read and hungry for more.

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