Reviewed by Sakura Gooneratne
Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.
He doesn’t devour them really; it only feels that way. He takes a girl to his tower, and ten years later he lets her go, but by then she’s someone different. Her clothes are too fine and she talks like a courtier and she’s been living alone with a man for ten years, so of course she’s ruined, even though the girls all say he never puts a hand on them. What else could they say? And that’s not the worst of it – after all, the Dragon gives them a purse full of silver for their dowry when he lets them go, so anyone would be happy to marry them, ruined or not.
But they don’t want to marry anyone. They don’t want to stay at all.
Naomi Novik’s novel Uprooted digs deep into Polish folklore with its welcome allusions to Baba Yaga and witches in dark, forbidding forests and a deep love of nature mingled with fear. Engrossing and gripping. I read Uprooted straight through, unwilling to put it down. I wanted to know what would happen to Agnieszka and Kasia, two friends bound by love, and the Dragon who transforms their lives. For in this novel, it is the women who are the pillars and I love what Novik does with them.
Nestled in a river valley in the village of Dvernik, 17 year old Agnieszka and her best friend Kasia prepare for the choosing ceremony that occurs every ten years. The village is bordered by the Wood within which a malevolent presence resides, snatching and maiming the unwary every chance it gets. The villagers are careful and it is only the Dragon, a powerful wizard who lives in a nearby tower, who can keep the evil at bay. But the Dragon has one concession; every ten years, he chooses a young girl who will be indentured to him. They suspect he takes them as lovers and yet all of them, after their release, deny this although most of them leave, unable to resume their lives in the village. And this time, it is Agnieszka and Kasia’s turn. All assume Kasia, golden and excelling at everything, will be chosen and she has spent her life in preparation. But the Dragon, to everyone’s shock, takes Agnieszka instead and so she must learn anew how to live in a strange place with a strange man and adjust to how the people in her village will now view her.
It is at the Dragon’s tower that she begins to discover what it is the Dragon has glimpsed within her. As she begins to realise that she is to be his apprentice rather than maidservant, he begins to teach her how to weave spells and control her power. They discover her magic is different from the dry, academic spells of the Dragon; Agnieszka’s is more organic and earthy, rooted in her origins. And as the dark force within the Wood threatens to break out just as the political tides in the ruling cities threaten to destabilise, Agnieszka realises that she is the only one who can help the Dragon against the Wood. And when Agnieszka rescues Kasia from the Wood, the news of her triumph travels to the capital and those with ulterior motives begin to search her out. For twenty years ago, the Queen was lost to the Wood and her sons want her back. Agnieszka is summoned to help them and is thrust into courtly intrigue, an unfamiliar and cruel world, without her mentor who must remain to keep the Wood in check. As the powerful court her magic, she must find a way to survive and return to save her loved ones.
This may seem like a typical bildungsroman and it is a journey which Agnieszka must take to realise her potential and discover what really matters to her and yet it is anything but. What Novik does is turn the typical into something extraordinary. Uprooted is the tale of Agnieszka and Kasia’s friendship, and the romantic angle which the Dragon provides is strictly secondary. Novik infuses such strength and resilience into the two women, coupled with the complex feelings that such strong friendships arouse including envy and neglect. Agnieszka’s growth as she begins to embrace her new life and to deflect the prejudices and suspicions from the very people she grew up with and to regain their trust is done matter of factly. Uprooted is essentially a tale of leaving your home and returning changed. And it is what you do with the change which defines you. I loved what she did with Kasia, who is rescued from the Wood by Agnieszka and who chooses her own path, so different from what was initially set out for her as a prospective bride and mother. Beauty, once her defining feature, is no longer of importance. She becomes a Valkyrie-like figure, standing by Agnieszka to find a way to fight the evil that has spread from the Wood and taken root within their society.
I really enjoyed reading Uprooted, with its echo of folkloric nostalgia but which has taken a different track. Novik does a fine job in imbuing her characters with a sense of vocation, the sense of belonging and inner strength.
Sakura Gooneratne blogs at Chasing Bawa
Naomi Novik, Uprooted (Tor: London, 2015) 9781447294139, 400pp., hardback.
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