Once I start reading a particular genre, I tend to get obsessed with it and keep on reading the same genre until my brain gives up. Currently, its fantasy and YA on my mind (the disastrous Midnight Sun notwithstanding), I have had a good run with Gideon The Ninth, Harrow The Ninth, King’s Cage, and War Storm (from the Red Queen Series by Victoria Aveyard).
So when I finished War Storm, I was looking for something equally interesting. I chanced upon Uprooted by Naomi Novik, a single book (which is a rarity in fantasy or YA). It was nominated for about 6 awards when it released in 2015 and won the Nebula Award for Best Novel. Uprooted has been purchased by Warner Brothers to turn into a movie. Novik has written other series before and has another book coming out this year.
Coming back to Uprooted, it’s a story about a small village that is protected by an intimidating wizard named Dragon (super cool name). The wizard protects them from drought, sickness, dark forces, etc. In return, he takes a single girl aged 17, every 10 years as a tribute/apprentice. Nobody knows what he does with the girls. After the 10 years are complete, he releases them back to their families. But the girls are different, more worldly, and they eventually leave the village to live in the city where they fit in. While the references to Polish culture are littered and generic, it gives a touch of authenticity, a sense of roots that most fantasy readers like and prefer.
Usually, Dragon picks a ‘special’ girl who is either beautiful or skilled or talented. This year everybody thinks its Kasia, the prettiest girl in the village and the most skilled. So, its a shock to say the least when it’s her best friend, not pretty, clumsy Agnieszka who gets selected by Dragon. This is where I felt some irritation rising. As much as YA and fantasy is about tropes, the clumsy, ‘ordinary’ girl being the protagonist feels so done to death. Agnieszka looks plain, she always is dirty, clumsy, loves to play outside and climb trees. In other words, she isn’t like other girls. Sigh.
The pacing of the book is its strength. Its quick, witty, and intense without being too winding or irrelevant. Dragon is sharp and his relationship with Agnieszka unfolds like every other mentor-mentee who are pushed together by fate. She is stubborn, willful, and he sees in her a magic that can be powerful. The apprentice slowly outclasses the teacher, surprising him (not the rest of us). And they prepare to take on evil forces (in the book, its the dark forest).
The book suffers due to its simplicity. The male protagonist bases his actions and magic in logic, rationality, while the female protagonist relies on intuition (every woman’s secret weapon). Dragon is a jerk, he focuses on himself but Agnieszka has nothing to offer except her gender and her clumsiness. We get it, she is not like other girls! But it steers clear away from the Beauty & the Beast syndrome, a forced romance between the arrogant abusive captor and the intriguing female captive. Thank God for small mercies.
The final battle is power-packed, something that is Novik’s forte. The Wood has been set as an evil antagonist, powerful and dark. The good vs evil fight is wonderful, involving complicated magic and finally showing Agnieszka as something more than a female apprentice. Her background, her history, and her powers all make sense and you are compelled to read through.
My recommendation- do read it if you want to try more YA but don’t want to invest time in a series. Novik’s pacing and style is quick, witty, and allows you to read this book in one sitting if you are inclined.