Sunday, September 13, 2015

Uprooted (Naomi Novik)

Naomi Novik
Del Rey
Fiction, YA Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Since time before memory, the dark corruption of the Wood has lurked in the valley of Agnieszka's home, birthing foul monsters and corrupting those who wander too far beneath its evil boughs. The wizard known as the Dragon protects the people from the Wood, asking only his share of taxes and a special tribute: every ten years, a girl aged seventeen is chosen to go to his tower for ten years. Tales beyond the valley insists that the Dragon devours these girls, or forces himself upon them, but Agnieszka knows better. She knows the girls survive, though they never return long to their villages, changed in some way by their service - yet she still can't help but hate him. For both she and her best friend were born in a Dragon year, due to come of age at his next choosing... and everyone knows that Kasia will be taken. Beautiful, graceful Kasia, trained since she was old enough to walk to cook for a lord, to be brave, to be skilled, to be everything the Dragon could possibly want in a servant. Soon she'll be gone, leaving Agnieszka far behind.
But when the Dragon comes, he doesn't take Kasia. He takes Agnieszka.
Soon, the clumsy, ill-prepared young woman is caught up in a world of magic and princes, curses and miracles, where nothing is as it seems - and where the terrible, twisted force behind the Wood threatens to destroy everything and everyone in the valley, and beyond.

REVIEW: Uprooted was evidently based loosely on a Polish fairy tale, and carries many fairy-tale elements in its rustic, pseudo-European setting and magic system. Even the characters have a hint of exaggeration about them, living in a world crafted of myth and story rather than flesh and blood, yet they retain a sense of grounding humanity. The Dragon (and most of the other wizards she encounters) tend to be cold and aloof, their softer sides worn out by centuries of living and - in the Dragon's case - centuries of fighting the implacable evil of the Wood. Agnieszka starts out clumsy and naive and full of peasant-girl notions of the world and the Dragon, but she does slowly figure things out. As for the Wood, it's a truly fearsome enemy, capable of turning even close friends into empty puppets in the service of its malevolence. The story starts fairly quickly and takes many unexpected turns, with successes and setbacks seemingly perfectly timed to pull the reader onward for just one more page, one more chapter. I read it in under two days, having great difficulty putting it down long enough to do much else while the story hung unresolved. Deeper themes of love and loss, of truth and delusions, of home and roots glimmer through the story like gilded threads in a tapestry. The actual wrap-up felt a little off, however, a stumble in the otherwise compelling rhythm. Likewise, the romance angle never quite rang true to me, feeling distinctly one-sided. Overall, though, it's an enjoyable, somewhat dark fairy tale.

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