This Just In: Uprooted Is Really Good

uprootedThis review will tell you what any Google search would say: Naomi Novik’s Uprooted is real good, and you should read it now. The rest of this post will just be that sentence repeated with different emphases (Uprooted is good, and you should read it now) and a few rambling ideas on what makes it so good. You’ve been warned.

I’m afraid the awesomeness of the book won’t come through in the plot description: Once upon a time, in a magical kingdom sort of like medieval Poland or Russia if it were being slowly eaten by an evil Wood, a young girl is kidnapped by a wizard called the Dragon. Her imprisonment becomes a magical apprenticeship and a fraught friendship, which gives her the tools necessary to rescue her best friend when she’s kidnapped by the Wood.

If this were your average young adult fantasy, we’d pretty much end right there. But instead, the plot spirals outward until whole courts and kingdoms are involved. The rescue of her friend sparks a series of events involving a missing Queen taken by the Wood decades ago, a brewing war, and the secret extent of the Wood’s poison seeping through the country.

All that sounds pretty cliché, but guys: Uprooted is good, and you should read it now.

At the same time, however, I’m a little surprised to find it has such broad appeal for fantasy readers. Not because it isn’t excellent, but because it seemed to be speaking to a very specific sub-species of fantasy, which I’ve mentally dubbed Those Books that Were Super Important to Me from Ages 11-15. They were mostly young-adult-ish books about young women coming of age and saving the kingdom, usually involving a romantic subplot, some very nature-y magic, and hopefully a few animal companions. I’m talking about Spindle’s End and The Blue Sword and all the Tamora Pierce books, about Dealing with Dragons and The Forgotten Beasts of Eld.

Reading Uprooted felt like re-reading one of my old favorites (which is a thing I do really, really often).[1] Not because it was predictable, because it isn’t: The Wood itself is populated by inventive monsters, the plotting is tangled and urgent, and there are threads of mysteries solved and unsolved throughout. But there was some deeper element, something in the tone or pacing, that I recognized and adored instantly.

uprooted 2Maybe it’s just that it feels like a fairytale. The elements of the plot are familiar ones, worn smooth by centuries of use (a young girl kidnapped by a wizard/Beast; an evil power lurking beneath the boughs of an aged forest; a missing Queen; a kingdom in imminent need of rescuing). More than just the pieces of plot, Uprooted seems to have captured the darkness lurking at the heart of true fairytales. When we call something a ‘fairytale,’ most people are accusing it of being light and happy, wish-fulfilling and implausible. But those who are more familiar with fairytales know them to be eerie, jagged things full of hot-iron shoes and plucked-out-eyes.[2] Uprooted is a book that understands this very well; not everyone taken by the Wood can be rescued, and the cost of trying is often fearfully high.

It occurs to me only now, a week or so after finishing it, that the darkness and fairytale-ness of the book may not feel so deeply familiar to every reader. Because when I use the word ‘fairytale,’ I don’t mean universal archetypal myths that pervade the human experience and are common across all times and places.[3] I’m referring to a fairly narrow set of Anglo European folk tales, which have been magnified far beyond their natural size by the economic and cultural dominance of global white culture. If my mother hadn’t given me a purple-bound copy of Grimm’s original fairy tales in elementary school—if she hadn’t read me the non-Disney version of Beauty and the Beast several dozen times—if I hadn’t fallen asleep as a child half-dreaming about rosethorn hedges and wandering witches, about deep woods and evil queens—would this book have been so satisfying? Maybe, but I kind of doubt it. Uprooted is speaking a very particular dialect in the language of fairy tales, which suits me well, but shouldn’t be mistaken for the common language of the world.

I don’t mean to imply that Uprooted is nothing but recycled bits of European stories stitched together into a Frankenstinian book-beast. Novik also performs the satisfying magic of subverting these stories, and retelling them in ways that undo some of the ugly stereotypes and hierarchies that cling remora-like to their undersides. Instead of being repeatedly rescued, Agneieszka is the book’s number-one rescuer, sometimes in need of partnership or help, but never in need of heroism. Instead of biting female jealousies, the theme here is friendship and sisterhood unimpeded by love triangles or competition. Instead of pretending medieval northern Europe was an island in the world magically untouched by people of color, there is at least one woman of African descent in a position of power.[4] Instead of Cinderella-ing her way out of rural poverty, our main character rejects class-climbing in favor of retaining her roots.

It’s this combination of newness and familiarity, radicalism and tradition, that makes Uprooted precisely the book you want to read on a hot June afternoon, stretched out in the sun and perfectly willing to return to the fairytale-stories of your youth.

Uprooted is good. Read it, now.

—-

[1] Like, all the time. I’ve probably read Spindle’s End and the Damar books upwards of fifteen times, and the Harry Potter audiobooks more or less played on an endless loop in our house for years, to the point that my siblings and I are bothered when we watch the movies because Hermione doesn’t sound enough like Jim Dale. It’s a condition. Pity me.

[2] It actually reminded me of Deerskin in that way, although not quite so dark.

[3] And, honestly, I’m not convinced archetypal narratives are as universal as we sometimes suppose, because even when the bare bones of a story happen to look similar in Ghana and Virginia, they may mean wildly different things to their audiences. It’s storytelling, not the stories themselves, that is universal to the creation of human culture.

[4] Although her loneliness puts Alosha in danger of being a Magical Negress, her possession of a real backstory, her powerful status, and her (spoiler) survival are fairly redemptive, I think.

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8 comments

  1. So many readers have loved Uprooted! I liked what I’ve read from the blurb, and all the positive reviews have convinced me that I really should read the book. I just have to buy it first. 🙂 Nice review, Alix!

  2. Oh, I just read this book too! It was so good, I immediately bought His Majesty’s Dragon (another of Novik’s books — equally good! And the first in a long series. I am so happy now, I can’t even tell you. I love finding a new and wonderful writer.

    1. That is EXACTLY what I did, while glowering and muttering to myself “why did nobody tell me there were books about dragons fighting the Napoleonic wars? Somebody should’ve told me.”

  3. As I had not done that Google search, I was completely unaware that Uprooted is good. But you are very convincing and it’s now added to The List.

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