Friday, 11 August 2017

Uprooted, by Naomi Novik

Uprooted is a fairytale-esque fantasy novel by Naomi Novik, author of the Tememaire series. The book charts the story of Agnieszka, a young girl from an unremarkable village on the edge of a dark, mystical and terrifying forest. Unexpectedly chosen by the 'Dragon', she begins a journey of discovery, both of the world around her and within herself. 

I won't give away too much of the plot as a lot of it is wrapped up in the personal growth story of Agneiszka, and the discovery process is as important for the reader as for the character, but I will try and encapsulate what I particularly enjoyed about this book.

The setting of Uprooted is dark; edged with magic and corruption. The forest that dominates Agneiszka's world is a living thing, its agency laced with a malignant intent and is quite hauntingly carried through the use of motifs and scenes that vary between creeping dread and outright violent horror. This setting is quite fascinating in how limited it is in many ways - the valley, the towns, the river, the forest and the Dragon's tower. The story expands somewhat as it progresses, but the little valley, the world outside Agneiszka's village, is the hub around which all the world spins. The limited setting is welcome, as readers we identify with the locals, feel the distance to court, the threat is more imminent... I am reminded that to write a good fantasy story one does not need a continent of mighty kingdoms as the backdrop...

I wrote at the beginning that the story felt very much a fairytale-esque fantasy novel. With the limited pool of characters, the limited setting, the feel of the threat and particularly the style of the magic the book feels very much like it could comfortably sit within the cannon of the Brothers Grimm or similar. The world has a very Slavic feel to it, and the magic plays a great role in this. It is folk magic: turning a leaf into a boat, a mud sculpture into an ox, throwing sticks into the air for them to become arrows or spears, one of the characters in the history of the setting is even Baba Jaga herself...

It is charming, the magic is delightful and disarming inasmuch as the forest against which the story sets itself is dark and foul. The history of the setting, of this little world, is similarly interesting, and ties nicely to the circular themes in the plot. There were times with Agneiszka frustrated me, her perpetual self-doubt and indecision were annoying traits; but she does grow, and in the end it is worth remembering she is a girl of 17 when she is swept into the story. At its core Uprooted is a girl-to-woman story, a story of growing up, of stepping into the shoes of necessity and getting things done, despite my occasional frustration with Agneiszka, she is likable; she is determined and fearless; bolder than those around her.

All taken together Uprooted is a highly enjoyable read. It is rare enough to find a stand alone fantasy novel and this one, for me, is best described as charming. I enjoyed the characters, setting, and story all, but the forest and the magic were the well-layered elements I loved most.

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