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Uprooted

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

I finished this novel last night, very close to the time its Nebula win was announced. It is also nominated for a Hugo, and I feel it is better than the two other nominees for that award that I have read so far. I'm not a huge fantasy fan, but I do like well-written stories with interesting characters. Uprooted, on the surface a familiar enough fairy tale, is also a compelling and unpredictable narrative. Novik is of Polish/Lithiuanian heritage, and she acknowledges the influence of stories she learned as a child, including that of Baba Yaga, although in this book her name is spelled Jaga. The story takes place in an area that is clearly a stand-in for Eastern Europe, with the two rival countries being Polnya (possibly an early name for Poland) and Rosya (Russia?). Other names, for either places or things, derive from Serbia or Croatia.

The first-person narrator is Agnieszka, known as Nieshka to her family and close friends, but she resents others who use that diminutive form of her name. She lives in the small village of Dvernik, close by the dreaded and frightful Wood, which has been slowly but inexorably encroaching on other villages as long as she can remember. The valley is protected by a wizard known as the Dragon, which is merely his magical name given him by the King on his acceptance into the council of wizards. He is not a dragon that takes human form, in fact no real dragons appear, but there are other mythical beasts. His real name is Sarkan, and he is at least a hundred years old, possibly twice that. All wizards age very slowly, and he appears no older than thirty or forty. For as long as any in the valley can remember, every ten years the Dragon has selected a seventeen year old girl from one of the villages to live with him in his tower. Next to nothing is known about their experience there, only speculation, and all have left the valley after their ten year period of servitude is over. Nieshka is certain her best friend Kasia will be chosen, since she is the most beautiful in the valley, but Sarkan chooses Nieshka instead.

The origin, nature, and intent of the malevolent force that controls the Wood is unknown. Nieshka is able to venture into more benign areas of the forest in search of berries and nuts, but she knows to avoid the heart-trees, which have been known to entrap people within their trunks. The Wood also utilizes other creatures for this task; some are plant/animal hybrids called Walkers, others giant insects similar to praying mantis. We learn early on why Sarkan chose Nieshka. She is a potential witch herself, something of which she was unaware until she comes across a book of spells written by Baba Jaga. A few months after her selection, Nieshka learns that Kasia has been taken by the Wood. Unbeknownst to Sarkan, she escapes the tower and is able to rescue Kasia. Normally, anyone taken by the Wood is considered "corrupted," and they would be killed and their body burned, but Nieshka is able to persuade Sarkan to help her perform a spell which purges the corruption from Kasia's body. Or does it?

A few, minor spoilers follow. The few quibbles I have with the story involve what I consider inconsistencies, but they aren't so major that they ruin the experience. First is Kasia. She has supposedly been purged of all corruption, Sarkan is convinced of that. Yet she exhibits extraordinary strength and abilities afterwards. I kept expecting it to be revealed that she was still under the Wood's influence, and that she would turn on Nieshka, but that never happened. Either she was strong enough to fight off that influence, or else her enhanced abilities were caused by some other force, but that's just left hanging. Another person, held captive by the Wood for a much longer period of time, is also rescued, and it seemed illogical that Sarkan could be sure she was also freed from the corruption. A couple of other things, but I won't dwell on them. As I said earlier, the majority of the story is unpredictable, with one exception. I won't be specific, but it involves the relationship between Nieshka and Sarkan.

I read a few comments on Amazon about there needing to be a trigger warning for the book, particularly for rape or an instance of 'Stockholm Syndrome.' The latter maybe, but if they're talking about Sarkan against Nieshka, there was no rape, in fact she is the one who initiated intimate contact, although she was under the influence of a spell at the time (of her own devising I might add). They didn't consummate that intimacy until much later in the book, but by that time it was by mutual consent. Yes, there was another attempt by someone else, a person who held even more power over Nieshka, but she was able to defend herself that time. Novik admirably describes Nieshka's awareness of her sexuality and desires without it being prurient or salacious, all the time confirming that what she does is through her own choices. This is supposedly a stand-alone novel, the only one Novik has written outside her Temeraire series (eight books so far). If so, it can stand on its own merits without need for embellishment, but I wouldn't say no to a continuation of Nieshka's story. Something tells me she might turn out to be the strongest witch/wizard her country has ever seen.

UPDATE: Uprooted also received a Locus Award as Best Fantasy Novel.

 

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Author
Naomi Novik

Published
2015

Awards
Nebula winner
Locus winner
Hugo nominee

Available from amazon.com