In Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, things are not as they seem. She and her first-person narrator tell readers that from the novel’s very beginning: “Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.” Nor is the valley’s Dragon a dragon — “he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man” — but he still claims a girl every ten years, and the people of the valley see both sides of that coin. “He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.”
The narrator is clear on how the price looks from the outside: “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 … they don’t want to marry anyone. They don’t want to stay at all.” They’ve been uprooted.
The narrator, Agnieszka, was born in a year that meant that when she turns seventeen, the Dragon would choose someone from her cohort as the next girl to come to his tower. “There aren’t so many villages in the valley that the chances are very low … There were eleven girls to choose from in my year, and that’s worse odds than dice. Everyone says you love a Dragon-born girl differently as she gets older; you can’t help it, knowing you so easily might lose her. But it wasn’t like that for me, for my parents. By the time I was old enough to understand that I might be taken, we all knew he would take Kasia.” So the story opens, with Agnieszka at seventeen telling her story, and by the way filling in some of the background of the valley with its villages, all overshadowed by the likelihood that at the next festival she will lose her closest friend to the sorcerous lord and his closed tower.
Agnieszka does not have the womanly virtues that her village society esteems, and she has seen nothing else of the world so she barely questions that judgement. “My parents wouldn’t have feared for me, very much, even if there hadn’t been Kasia [who was all the things thought best]. At seventeen I was still a too-skinny colt of a girl with big feet and tangled dirt-brown hair, and my only gift, if you could call it that, was I would tear or stain or lose anything put on me between the hours of one day. My mother despaired of me by the time I was twelve … ‘You’ll have to marry a tailor,’ my little Agnieszka, my [woodcutter] father would say, laughing, when he came home from the forest at night and I went running to meet him, grubby-faced, with at least one hole about me, and no kerchief.” Novik has set up the first opposition of the book — Agnieszka and the expectations of those around her — with the Dragon’s choice soon to tear her best friend away, and lurking in the background whatever it is about the Wood (as opposed to the forest where her father works) that earns its capitalization and the need for the Dragon’s protection.
She has sketched the expectations and preparations in Dvernik, her village, so clearly that the Dragon’s appearance at the festival is a surprise. “And then he came, horribly. He didn’t come from the road at all, he just stepped straight out of the air. I was looking that way when he came out: fingers in midair and then an arm and a leg and then half a man, so impossible and wrong that I couldn’t look away even though my stomach was folding itself over in half.” His choice — Agnieszka — even more so, sharpened by his manner. “‘Well,’ he said ungraciously, ‘you then, I suppose.'”
And that’s not even the end of the first chapter! Uprooted barrels along at the eventful pace of the fairy tales it draws on, balancing between the satisfactions of a traditional story well told and a fantasy modern enough that the characters have heard the bards’ songs and village tales, and know that they cannot be living in one, that there are no guarantees that all will turn out well for any of them.
The story is set in a province of a kingdom that is roughly based on the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the late medieval or early Renaissance period. In the book the kingdom is called Polnya, so Novik is not exactly going to any lengths to disguise the similarity, although the specific geography is left in the realm of the mythic. It’s a nice change of pace from the warmed-over England common to much of fantasy, and Novik focuses on her story so that most of the pilfered historical background remains incidental.
(It’s interesting, though, to contrast Novik’s imagined Polnyia with the setting for The Witcher, which also draws on old Poland, if more implicitly. Sapkowski’s world calls up the Poland that was swept by tides of foreign invaders or beset by civil wars or, in particularly trying times, both. Novik’s magnates have a basic loyalty to the country, though they would not be above putting one royal contender ahead of another to advance their personal goals. Both settings have fading remnants of earlier peoples who settled the lands, a common enough fantasy element, but also particular to the Polish nobility’s myths about itself. Novik is more explicit in her parallels, with names, and the figure of Baba Yaga. Sapkowski’s lost worlds could be the lost social system he grew up under as much as the bygone centuries of the Commonwealth; Novik draws more directly from the legendary substratum.)
Only very gradually, as one crisis leads pell-mell into the next, does Novik make plain the importance of the valley Agnieszka comes from, as she herself turns out to be not what she appeared at first, even though the signs have been there from the beginning. Nor is the Dragon what he first appears to be, and what lies beneath changes as he is affected by the events of the novel. Each reversal proceeds from traits of the characters; disasters come from good intentions far more often than from actual malice, youthful desire for justice butts up against the costs that experience can clearly see, with neither truly in the wrong, and neither able to stop.
In the background of many of these tribulations lurks the Wood, a source of terror in the valley’s villages, and corruption for the kingdom as a whole. Many years ago, the Queen vanished in the Wood with a high nobleman from Rosya, sparking wars that have drained the kingdom ever since. In the middle of Uprooted, the king’s younger son wants to bring the cycle of wars to an end, but his method may lead to an even greater disaster. Neither Agnieszka nor the Dragon can completely stay out of these events either. Even powerful wizards cannot hold themselves aloof from secular power for very long.
(I was struck by the contrast between the Wood in Uprooted and a similar wilderness in the Wolfhound Century books by Peter Higgins. The Wood is home to active malevolence, a power that produces monsters, consumes villages, poisons cattle and drives people mad. Left unchecked by the Dragon, it would devour the valley at the very least, and possibly all of Polnyia. The wilderness east of the Vlast in Higgins’ world is also a source of non-human magic, a contrast to human construction, and possibly a threat to the order that people have made, but at the same time it is the source of the transcendence that can redeem the world. The Wood, it seems, is just malice and corruption. Novik’s conception further put me in mind of Chernobyl and the vast poisoned wilderness surrounding it.)
I most liked the vividness of the characters, and how their interconnections grew naturally from the traits that they showed all along. Agnieszka, the Dragon, Kasia, and later leading persons of the kingdom including priests and wizards (especially Alosha, the woman who is Polnyia’s fiercest protector), princes and courtiers. Novik sketches people from the valley villages with as much sympathy as she does sophisticated court people, and she is deft with people saying one thing and doing another while remaining true to their character. Uprooted never slows down, but it never feels rushed or bolted together. It’s satisfying from start to finish, and looking back at the beginning now, I see how seeds planted at the start put down roots and grew toward the end. Things are not as they seem, except for this story, which is every bit as good as it seems from the start.