Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A dragon demands that a village offer a maiden in tribute once every 10 years. Or how about this one? A young girl is trapped in a tower near a cursed wood.
In Uprooted, Naomi Novik combines elements of fairy tales with Russian folklore to conjure up one of the most enjoyable fantasy novels I’ve read in years.
Novik, of course, is no stranger to flying firebreathers, having created the "Temeraire" series, an alternate history of the Napoleonic wars where Britain has an air force – of dragons.
In “Uprooted,” the dragon doesn’t come with wings or scales. Instead, he is a wizard with an unusual approach to human resources: Rather than put a “Help Wanted” sign on his tower, he demands tribute in terms of cooking and cleaning. Each chosen girl is expected to serve 10 years, and then is sent on her way with enough silver to set up shop wherever she wishes. The girls never return to the valley.
“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,” one of the tribute girls, Agnieszka, says. “He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.”
Agnieszka has grown up knowing that her best friend, Kasia, will be chosen when they are both 16, and preemptively hates the wizard for taking her friend. Kasia is the most beautiful and brave girl in the valley, everyone knows this, and the Dragon always takes the most special girl.
And he does. Agnieszka – affectionately known as Nieshka – isn’t much of a cook and cannot go 15 minutes without snarling her hair or staining her skirts, is chosen, much to the wizard’s annoyance.
“What an unequaled gift for disaster you have,” he tells his irritating new apprentice.
Nieshka also has a gift for magic, although she is an unwilling pupil and can’t cast what the Dragon assures her are the simplest spells without wanting to sleep for a week. At least, until the Wood threatens her village and her best friend, and Nieshka finds her own way of doing magic.
“No one went into the Wood and came out again, at least not whole and themselves,” she explains. “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.”
“Uprooted” is as full of life and surprise as one of Nieshka’s spells. (It is also one of the rare books that manages to make magic feel magical.)
Novik hits all the echoes of a fairy tale without her story ever feeling prefabricated. There are magical gowns – which Nieshka can’t stand, since she can’t breathe in them and it’s just a matter of time before she gets scrambled egg on the sleeve. There’s a prince, whose charm is debatable, who is determined to rescue his mother from the wood. And there are wood spirits and walking trees, which have precious little in common with Lewis’s benevolent dryads or Tolkien’s Ents.
My main quibble – and it’s not really a criticism – was that I wanted more. In a fantasy genre dominated by series whose plots are then stretched even further to cover two or three more movies to eke out every last Hollywood dollar (See “Hobbit 26: Bilbo Does the Dishes”), “Uprooted” is downright succinct.
I devoured the first half in a gulp one evening and then deliberately put the book down for several days because I wasn’t ready to leave.
This is the kind of book that reminds readers why “once upon a time” originally cast a spell on them.
It is, in a word, enchanting.