Review: Uprooted (Naomi Novik)

Book Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Fantasy / Standalone

“We were of the valley. Born in the valley, of families planted too deep to leave even when they knew their daughter might be taken; raised in the valley, drinking of whatever power also fed the Wood.”

The woods near Agnieska’s hometown are dark and sinister, corrupting people who are caught too close or too careless. The town’s only protection is the Dragon, a powerful wizard who lives nearby. As his price, he takes one young woman from the village every ten years. Everyone is sure the next girl he takes will be Agnieska’s beautiful and talented best friend, Kasia – but when the time comes, he chooses Agnieska instead, and she finds herself face to face with the power and mystery of both the Dragon and the malevolent woods.

There are so many good things about this book. It is beautifully and cleverly written. I enjoyed the name, and how “uprootedness” comes back again and again both metaphorically and literally through the book. I appreciated the system of magic, and particularly the anti-classist themes that were explored by it. The Dragon looks down on Agnieska’s magic because it is rural, primitive, and intuitive, only to find it is more powerful – magically and emotionally – than his own. And I am always really pleased by the depiction of a complicated but strong female friendship like the one between Kasia and Agnieska.

But ultimately Uprooted felt unsatisfying for me, in spite of all the good things I can say about it. One reason, sadly, is the hype burnout effect. Having fallen in love with her Temeraire series, and then seeing the pretty much unanimous praise for Uprooted, I had enormous expectations for this book. I undoubtedly would have appreciated it much more if I had read it without any knowledge of Novik’s work and without having read any reviews. I went in fully expecting to love it to pieces, and that’s a tough bar for any book.

The second reason is the somewhat indefinable question of resonance – that is, do the story or characters resonate with me in a meaningful way? For whatever reason, this is where the book fell flat for me. Nothing about the book’s thematic content, or the characters, or the plot moved me particularly, and I’m at a bit of a loss to explain why when so many other people have found them so compelling.

The best I can do is try to compare and contrast with a similar book I read recently which did resonate with me, A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn. There are countless similarities between the two books: a young girl who is ‘uprooted’, a Dragon who is actually a human man; a vain, narcissistic but strangely appealing love interest, and the mysterious, sinister woods who the protagonist feels both connected to and threatened by. Both books kept me excited and entertained throughout, but it was A Creature of Moonlight that left me in tears at the end. Uprooted has stronger writing, especially in the comparable sections with the young country protagonist adjusting to life at court, which was much more interesting, exciting, and nuanced in Uprooted. And yet I ended up connecting to the character much more in A Creature of Moonlight. I felt the book was so much about respecting the agency and choices of young women, and I related to it so forcefully. There were such obvious and tragic consequences for not respecting the decisions and values of young women in A Creature of Moonlight; the same consequences weren’t present for anyone in Upooted. And I’m especially referring to the Dragon, of course – I don’t feel like he ever has to face consequences for his condescending and disrespectful treatment of Agnieska.

Which brings me to my biggest issue with the book: the main relationships. I didn’t like the Dragon at all, and his relationship with Agnieska horrified me. I should clarify that I think he’s an interesting and well-written character – but an ass, and so I had no investment in Agnieska’s relationship with him. There is no chance I would pursue a romantic relationship with someone who had insulted my intelligence, habits, and appearance so casually for so long, and it was hard to watch Agnieska do just that. Kasia, on the other hand, I liked a great deal, but I wanted more out of her relationship with Agnieska. I would rather have spent more time exploring her emotional state and connection to Agnieska (and less time with the Dragon).

So that was Uprooted for me; I’m glad I read it, I enjoyed it, but I  wish I had loved it the way I wanted to.

If you like _____________, I recommend checking out Uprooted:

  • Eastern European folklore
  • Atmospheric fairytales
  • Coming of age stories about young women
  • Strong female friendships
  • Standalone (completed) epic fantasy

If you dislike____________, you might want to avoid Uprooted:

  • Content including attempted rape/sexual assault and abusive relationships

2 thoughts on “Review: Uprooted (Naomi Novik)”

  1. I generally agree with your review; I could really appreciate the way this book was written, but I didn’t feel emotionally involved. I found the spellcasting just a little too detailed at times. I really liked the friendship between the two women, and it was nice to read a book that had more friendship than romance in it.

    I read this book before all the hype, but people love it so much I haven’t wanted to say anything negative. I too prefer the Temeraire books — but I also like alternative history more than traditional fantasy.
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    1. I’m glad I’m not the only one! I know what you mean – I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, so to speak, because it’s great to see so many people so excited about a book. I delayed writing this review for quite a long time because of that. Hopefully it’s honest without dissuading anyone who hasn’t tried the book from picking it up yet, or being unfair to those people who did love it!

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