Once upon a time, I read myths, folktales and fairy tales. Thankfully, this was way back before Disney was ubiquitous, so I subsided on Andrew Lang‘s The [Color] Fairy Books, Ruth Manning-Sanders‘ Book of [Magical Creature]s. And even Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, though they were usually devoid of the embellishment I enjoyed. Uprooted brought back the memory of those days, of reading an unfamiliar fairy tale for the first time. I was transported as I read… at least for the first two hundred pages. The storytelling was mesmerizing, the graceful way it moved forward in time, backward in memory, telling the tale of how Agnieszka came to be taken by the Dragon to his Tower and discover her magic and the magic of the Wood.
“That was the end of the story: no one went into the Wood and came out again, at least not whole and themselves. Sometimes they came out blind and screaming, sometimes they came out twisted and so misshapen they couldn’t be recognized; and worst of all sometimes they came out with their own faces but murder behind them, something gone dreadfully wrong within.”
Initially, characterization shone. The young women in this story are human enough to be fallible, but are also caring, determined and faithful. Agnieszka often thinks of herself as a creeping mouse, but she has spirit: “I could sleep at night again, and my spirit began to recover, too. Every day I felt better, and every day more angry.” Lovely, strong Kasia has been Agnieszka’s friend for as long as they can remember, and has been the one everyone knew the Dragon would take: “I know I’m making her sound like something out of a story. But it was the other way around. When my mother told me stories about the spinning princess or the brave goose-girl or the river-maiden, in my head I imagined them all a little like Kasia; that was how I thought of her.” I loved the way Novik noted the tension their roles placed on their relationship while still allowing them to remain fast friends. It was a well-done female friendship, and didn’t go to any of the tropey places I anticipated. The down notes on characterization come later, as Novik pulls a major switch, first garnering sympathy for a weak character and then changing motivations.
Plotting kept me guessing. There was a fairy-tale feel to it, but as events started to spiral beyond the initial set-up of self-discovery, I wasn’t able to predict where it would go. Unfortunately, one of the places it did go was a city, and once Agnieska headed there, it transformed from an intimate, personal story to one of epic scale. Agnieska’s personal journey and transformation were sacrificed for politics, losing mystical overtones in favor of mundane ones. It’s hard to put the malevolence of a single courtier on a parallel with a heartwood tree, for instance, and Novik lost the thread of the story. Nieska becomes unbelievably powerful by the time she leaves the city, freely creating spells under stressful situations, magicking escape after escape. Jaga’s book becomes a bit of a deux ex machina, showing her the way to a new spell when she needs it. Characters who behaved a certain way out of deep-seated emotional desires suddenly were realized to be behaving another way out of political intrigue. When an army was brought into it and mobilized within days, I started skimming, depressed I was no longer hanging on to Novik’s every word. It felt like the lovely ride I was on had escaped control.
Quite honestly, it reminded me of the way Hollywood tacks on a grand finale action scene to a movie that isn’t really about action–the resulting scenes of the siege seemed over-the-top and actually did make me question Novik’s ideas of character motivations. However, I stuck with it and found that Novik was able to rein in her runaway horse. Once again the Wood was approached and the deep source of the Wood’s discontent discovered. Unfortunately, it made the calculated upheaval in the city and the following siege all the more incongruous.
Note should be made of the Dragon’s relationship with Agnieszka. At first, it feels very My Fair Lady, which lots of negative, insulting comments about every aspect of Nieshka’s character. I wasn’t surprised at the growth of emotional connection, and I thought it was handled reasonably organically. Likewise, Nieshka’s growing realization about the long lives of wizards and the growing emotional disconnection made sense. However, I was a little disappointed in how it developed, because it felt like a simple modernization (I’ll spend time on my own! Grow my own life!) of a very old romance trope. The upshot is going to be had Nieshka humanizes her calculating, emotionally distant man and will reconnect him to the roots of the world. A five start book might have pushed that conclusion harder.
Filled with richer detail than most fairy tales, it reminded me of when I read Robin McKinley’s Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast for the very first time (but you know what was better about the Beast than the Dragon? He was always kind. And he had a library of all the books ever written). I absolutely loved the first section and would have given it all the stars I had to award, but the incongruous battle lost the magic and the hasty ending only had a few moments to regain it.