"Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful."
-- Agnieszka of Dvernik
So What is it?
Released in 2015, Uprooted is the first stand-alone novel by author Naomi Novik, better known for her Temeraire series.
Uprooted is Novik's play on Beauty and the Beast, just as her more recent novel, Spinning Silver is a play on Rumplestiltskin.
Uprooted is like Howl's Moving Castle mixed with that one Fantasia 2000 short with the Dryad, mixed with The Walking Dead.
The country of Polnya has been at war with its neighbor, Rosya for twenty years, ever since a prince of Rosya had wooed and run off with Polnya's queen. However, nobody in the Valley where Agnieszka lives cares much about that, because their valley and villages are at the edge of the Wood-- a massive forest home to some unknown and ancient evil that serves as a barrier between their valley and Rosya. Monsters come from the Wood; sometimes they're regular animals that have been warped and mutated by magical corruption, whose bites infect anyone and anything unlucky enough to be in reach. Other times, it's misshapen tree-like creatures called Walkers who snatch unwary travelers and drag them into the forest. Sometimes the people they take are never seen again. Other times, the people return, seemingly normal, but then they smile and speak casually to their loved ones in a strangely hypnotic voice until all that's left of the household are the corpses found the next morning. Food from the Wood brings sickness, and even breathing the air there is dangerous.
The only thing protecting Agnieszka (or Nieshka to her friends) and the others is the local liege lord and wizard, The Dragon. The Dragon isn't a dragon, but he is a 150 year old, quasi-immortal wizard who's been living in the local tower for as long as anyone alive can remember. He doesn't like to deal with people, but he shows up when he's needed to hold the Wood back, routinely taking groups of men to burn it when it creeps beyond its borders, and to try and cure those who've been touched by corruption. There's just one catch: every ten years, the dragon picks a village girl born in October to live with him for the next ten years. After the ten years are up, he lets the girl go with a large dowry and he chooses the next one, but the girls he takes are never the same after. They stick around just long enough to say goodbye to their families, then leave with their dowries, settling in places away from the Valley and the Wood, attending university and sending money back home instead.
Agnieszka's best friend Kasia is beautiful, intelligent, and brave, and since she was a little girl, everyone in their village knew that she would be chosen. The Dragon always takes the girl who is most special in some way, who catches his attention, and everyone is convinced it will be Kasia. Even her own family has raised her with the understanding that they will inevitably lose her; she was taught how to cook and clean and sew and sing and everything else a servant girl to nobility would need to know.
However, you may have noticed I've mentioned Agnieszka more than I've mentioned Kasia, so you can probably guess who actually gets chosen.
Now Agnieszka has to put up with a gloomy wizard, a very annoying prince whose only redeeming quality is his love for his still-missing mother, another, much more weaselly wizard who wants to outdo the first one regardless of the cost, courtly intrigue, her own blossoming and entirely-confounding magical abilities, and the spirit of the Wood, who has become more and more brazen in its attacks, especially after Nieshka manages to destroy one of its fortifying "Heart-Trees"-- the first one to be destroyed in centuries.
I highly enjoyed this book. It's a completely different style from Novik's Temeraire-- despite being set in a time period that takes place before those books (albeit in a fantastical new setting), the writing style feels more modern, and it's easy to consume (I knocked out both Uprooted and Spinning Silver in a day, each). Some elements of the plot were fairly predictable, but other parts legit kept me on edge.
I love Kasia (spoilers)
I am so fucking happy Kasia exists.
Kasia is Nieshka's best friend, and the one everyone thought would get picked instead. She almost did get picked, except that The Dragon noticed at the last second that Nieshka had magic, and went "Oh Crap" and grabbed her instead. See, it turns out he takes a person from the village because they are all innately connected with the Wood in a way he isn't, and he uses their ambient magical connection to keep an eye on the Wood and plan how to defend against it. He picks girls because they're nice to look at and easier to deal with, though he doesn't ever do anything to them (as is made clear throughout the novel). When he sees Agniezska has magic, he has to get her away from the Wood as fast as possible, because if the Wood finds out and takes her, it could turn her into some kind of ultra powerful abomination (the last time it took a wizard/witch, it destroyed an entire large village and would have done more had The Dragon not committed a mercy kill).
As such, it would have been really easy to have Kasia booted from the plot. However, Kasia remains one of the main-secondary characters; she's taken by the Wood and Nieshka saves her, and then she becomes a focal point for Nieshka because it turns out there's a law against trying to revive any of the corrupted (as it has never worked in the past). Even then, it could have been so easy to have her shuffled off to the side to be some hapless damsel, but no, she remains a solid character who helps Agniezska, becomes a badass, gets a cool sword, and by the end of the book, she's become a royal bodyguard/adopted aunty to the young (and recently orphaned) crown prince and princess.
There's a point where, when saving her from the influence of the Wood, Nieshka has to use an ancient spell of truth/revelation, and the two of them see how they've each secretly harbored hatred for each other; Nieshka had always been envious of how Kasia was the special one, the pretty one, the one everyone loved because they knew she'd be taken from them. Likewise, Kasia was envious of Agniezska because she wasn't, she was the one who would be safe with her mother and father, whose mother didn't make her go towns away to learn how to serve, whose mother didn't intentionally try to stop loving her so it wouldn't hurt when she was gone. It's an ugly, raw moment, but the beauty of it is that their friendship and love for each other trump whatever petty jealousy they have.
It's just a really nice friendship, you guys.
For the first half of the book, The Dragon is a mostly-unlikable prick, so I was going to have issue with Nieshka inevitably falling for him, however about part way through, there's a revelation that explains that he's not necessarily an asshole, he's just socially retarded and very shy around people, to the point where Nieshka starts noticing that all the unpleasant scowling he'd been doing and being red-faced with what she thought was anger is actually him in a constant state of mortified embarrassment from having to deal with people when he just wants to go back to his library. While this may still be a turn off for some people (after all, dick behavior is still dick behavior), it made him a little more likable to me, so I was okay with it, especially as he mellows out through the book.
Because this is a bit of a Beauty and the Beast rehash, there is a romance subplot, but it's unobtrusive for the most part, and the bits that are obvious were well-written enough to make me okay with it. Usually I dislike romance, but the characters were charming enough that it pulled through.
Also, there is legit a scene near the end of the book that is basically Dead Girl Walking from the Heathers musical. Like, it is legitimately that scene, so while normally sex scenes throw me for a loop, I was giggling through that one because Dead Girl Walking was playing in my head.