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Friday, June 5, 2015

Naomi Novik: "Uprooted"

Author:  Naomi Novik  
Title:  Uprooted 
Plot Type: A Coming-of Age Fantasy that combines elements of Medieval, High, Romantic, and Sword-and-Sorcery Fantasy subgenres
Ratings:  Violence5; Sensuality3; Humor—2-3   
Publisher:  Del Rey (5/2015)

                         PUBLISHER'S BLURB                         
“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. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.”

     Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests, and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.

     Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.

     The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.

     But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.

                         MY SUMMARY AND REVIEW                         
     I almost didn't read this book because Medieval Fantasy is definitely not on my list of favorite genres. Thank goodness I didn't go with my first impulse. Novik has created a terrific tale by pulling together elements from several Fantasy subgenres, mixing in some fairy-tale elements, and then adding a cast of singular characters who grow and develop before our very eyes as events carry them along at an increasingly fast and dangerous pace. She uses several familiar tropesthe sentient Wood that is possessed by a dark and corrupted being, the plain but brilliant peasant girl who is chosen to serve a harsh (but sexy) master sorcerer, and a King's Court full of snobby courtiers who look down their noses at our feisty heroine.

     The first half of the book follows Agnieszka through her selection by and apprenticeship to the Dragon (aka Sarkan), who is the most powerful sorcerer in the Rosyan Kingdom. He lives by himself in the marble Tower near the edge of the Wood, and his job is to keep the Wood under control—to prevent it from overrunning the villages with its monstrous creatures (both wolfy and insectile), murderous vines, and waves of poisonous pollen and fog. The evil Wood lies between the Rosyan Kingdom and the Kingdom of the Yellow Marshes and has posed a major threat to both kingdoms for many generations.

     At first, Sarkan rudely orders Agnieszka around, expecting her to prepare his meals and do other menial work in the Tower. He also forces her to learn some elementary cantrips, simple one-word spells that make her life easierfor example, creating new clothes for herself and changing simple food into a sumptuous feast. At first, Agnieszka believes that all of the girls before her were treated in the same way, but Sarkan soon explains that she is different from the others because she is a Witch. In fact, that is why he chose herbecause it is the King's law that every Witch must be taught to use her magic correctly. 

Charles Shulz's Pig-Pen
    Sarkan has two major problems with Agnieszka. First is her always-slovenly appearance. Agnieszka reminds me of a character in Charles Shulz's Peanuts comic strip named Pig-Pen, who walks around in a constant cloud of dirt. Each day, Agnieszka puts on a clean dress in the morning and manages to stain and/or tear it before she even gets down to the kitchen to fix breakfast. 

     The second problem is that Agnieszka is unable (and unwilling) to repeat Sarkan's spells with exactly the same pronunciations and syllables that he uses. She gets the right results (usually), but she does it in a more earthy, naturalistic, personalized manner (her low magic vs. his high magic). This drives Sarkan crazy, and he spends much of the first half of the book in a state of glowering indignation because she refuses to mimic his words and phrases, but still manages to complete her magical tasks. 

     Sarkan is a lover of beauty and perfection in all things, and Agnieszka is quite sure that she will never be able to live up to his standards. As the months go by, though, she becomes less passive and begins to stick up for herself, and he begins to calm down a bit. "He tried to teach me as best he could…though it was foreign…to him. He did still resent my success, not from jealousy but as a matter of principle: it offended his sense of the proper order of things that my slapdash workings did work, and he scowled as much when I was doing well as when I had made some evident mistake."

     When Sarkan is called away to get rid of a chimaera, he leaves Agnieszka alone in the Tower with specific instructions NOT to touch anything or try anything new until he returns (kind of like what happened with Mickey Mouse in Disney's "Sorcerer's Apprentice" in Fantasia). But when Agnieszka sees a beacon fire of distress from her home village, she gathers up a bag full of Sarkan's potions and goes to the rescue. It is at this point that the plot begins to thicken and the tone turns darker and darker.

     A mere plot summation cannot do justice to this wonderful novel because it would seem like the author crammed too much into a single book. But that is definitely not the case. Yes, the plot has many, many twists and turns, and yes, the cast of characters is huge, but I never was confused about what was going on and I always knew exactly who was who. That is due entirely to Novik's transcendent writing skills, which ensure that the story unfolds so naturally and effortlessly that you just keep turning the pages, sinking deeper and deeper into Agnieszka's world. Every peasant, every noble, every sorcerer is a unique individual with a distinct personality that emanates from their words and actions. Every plot twist serves to ratchet up the tension and add even more depth to the drama. 

     One of the strongest relationships is the one between Agnieszka and her best friend, Kasia, and their deep friendship is a driving force that heavily influences the story line in a variety of ways. Also interesting is the back-and-forth wordplay between Agnieszka and Sarkan. First, they are adversaries, then master and student, then partners, and finally loversgradually deepening their relationship in a perfectly paced progression. 

     The Wood itself is an important plot element that Novik describes in wonderfully creepy detail. Here is Agnieszka's description of her first journey into the depths of the Wood: "There was something watching. I felt it more and more with every step the deeper I went into the Wood, a weight laid heavily across my shoulders like an iron yoke. I had come inside half-expecting corpses hanging from every bough, wolves leaping at me from the shadows. Soon I was wishing for wolves. There was something worse here…something alive, and I as trapped...with it.... There was a song in the forest, too, but it was a savage song, whispering of madness and tearing and rage." Novik paints a vivid word picture of the malevolent Wood: "a tree in the distance, an old blackened oak struck years before by lightning; moss hung from its dead branches, like a bent old woman spreading wide her skirts to curtsy." "There were shapes still half-buried beneath the moss, here and there a hand of bones breaking the sod, white fingertips poking through the soft carpeting green that caught the light and gleamed cold." "A monstrous thing like a praying mantis…blended against the heart-tree: narrow golden eyes the same shape as the fruits, and a body of the same silvery green as the leaves."

     As the story progresses, Agnieszka finds herself in several very different settings: her humble village, Sarkan's marble Tower, the sumptuous court of the King, and the sinister Wood, and each one is perfectly and completely realized. You see the details, hear the sounds, and even smell the odors of each one. If all Medieval Fantasies were this good, I'd be a convert.

     Click HERE to read Chapter 1, which includes Agnieszka's surprise selection by the Dragon and her first days in the Tower. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Chapter 4 that humorously illustrates the Dragon's indignation over Agnieszka's attempts at spell-casting. Click HERE to read selected quotations from Uprooted on Goodreads.

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