I’m always here for wizards and witches wrapped up in the familiar contours of a fair tale. Naomi Novik’s 2015 book, Uprooted, which I’m reading for my Perfectly Paired book club, exceeded my expectations even beyond the gravitational pull of said wizards and witches. You could even say, Novik’s book uprooted my expectations!
Agnieszka is a peasant girl of a woodcutter in a village near the Wood, a cursed, evil, and alive forest threatening to encroach further upon the villagers … and the whole world. Thankfully (or an extension of the curse, depending on your perspective), the villagers have the wizard who goes by Dragon and lives in a far-off tower to guard them from the Wood, so long as the villagers “sacrifice” a teenage girl to them every 10 years. He doesn’t seem to rape them or abuse them (this is something they speculate about), but nonetheless, they are held within his tower for that 10-year stretch and when freed, they are typically “uprooted” from their village and leave.
Thinking the Dragon will select her best friend, Kasia, who is, uh, better groomed, for the role, Agnieszka isn’t worried until the Dragon unexpectedly chooses her, engendering guilt that because she was hoping the Dragon would take her best friend, and in turn, the best friend feeling bitterness that she so primed herself for being selected only to be left behind in a village that didn’t expect to still have her presence.
Dragon is a curmudgeon, who often calls Agnieszka “stupid” and an “idiot,” is more than 100-years-old, but he’s the best wizard in the area, and he’s going to teach Agnieszka his ways, bit by bit, starting with easy trickery known as cantrips (I kept calling it catnip in my head), and this is how Agnieszka learns she’s not only a witch, but much to Dragon’s surprise (and again, Agnieszka’s own), she has greater magical power than she ever realized, mostly because her approach is different than Dragon’s. Whereas Dragon is academic and studious, precise to a fault with his spellcasting, Agnieszka is more like a jazz musician, improvising and feeling her way along with the magic as she’s spellcasting in real time. That’s a startling prospect to Dragon, but it means that when it comes to issues with the Wood, like when Kasia is taken into the Wood to be “corrupted,” Agnieszka can and does rescue her since she’s thinking about magic differently.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a fantasy book if we didn’t have a romance, and in my opinion and my only criticism of the book, a shoehorned romance, as Dragon and Agnieszka fall in love with each other, having first a haphazard kissing session after a hot magical moment, and then later, full-on sex, and by the end of the book, Dragon returns to her for a happy ending. But like, he’s more than 100-years-old and she’s a teen, but also, yes, by his actions, Dragon saved her a few times, but he was still a jerk repeatedly calling her stupid and an idiot! He never redeemed himself in that particular way. Alas.
How the wizard/witch on wizard action happens (and I don’t mean the sex) is because of Prince Marek and his wizard, the Falcon, who seek the rescue of the Prince’s mother, the Queen, who vanished in the Wood 20 years prior (after Agnieszka proved she could rescue someone from the Wood with Kasia). They are able to do so after Marek’s soldiers are slaughtered by Walkers and Mantises in the Wood, and while the Queen appears to not be “corrupted,” because Agnieszka and Dragon can use spells to check for shadows lurking within her body from the Wood — even breathing the air once in the Wood is enough to corrupt you and put you and anyone near you in mortal peril, much less being entombed in a heart-tree for 20 years — the Queen is, nonetheless, bereft of life. She’s like a catatonic puppet, but to what end, we don’t yet know.
That event, though, brings the undoing to the kingdom of Polnya, because by law, anyone “corrupted” must face trial and if found corrupted, they must be executed, with their head lopped off and burned. So, Kasia and the Queen must face trial. While Agnieszka is able to convince the nobles and the king to acquit them, curses start to befall the kingdom, making Agnieszka and Dragon think the Wood is somehow influencing the Queen: the king is killed (along with another wizard), a war is started between Polnya and its enemy on the other side of the Wood, resulting in 10,000-some men dead, and the heir apparent to the throne, dead, and then his wife, the Princess, is killed, too, and another witch severely injured, but she’s seen as the “traitor” who caused it, along with Agnieszka, Kasia, and Dragon.
Marek and Falcon, likely influenced by the Queen, aka the corruption of the Wood, bring thousands of men to the tower where Agnieszka has fled, where Dragon is with a battalion of village soldiers, who all war with each other, wizard and witch against wizard, spellcasting against Wood corruption. Eventually, the Queen kills her own son, Marek after the canon-blasts and arrows are done flying.
The Queen is virtually unkillable, even with fire that scorches anything it touches and a sword that should slice through anything. When Agnieszka and Dragon try to kill the Queen and the Wood once and for all, Agnieszka is instead entombed in one of the heart-trees. There, she learns what I was suspecting was coming all along: The story is a motif for how we are the ones encroaching on the forest, the Wood, and slaughtered magical beings in the Wood, who over time to protect themselves, became more and more like trees and forgot what it was to be human. That was the villain origin story of the Queen, who started feeding villagers to the trees.
In that way, it was actually the Wood and the people of the Wood who were “uprooted,” giving us the deeper meaning of the book’s title versus obviously, Agnieszka being uprooted from her peasant life.
Agnieszka spends the last chunk of the book planting good trees with good fruit for the Walkers (tree people, basically), and like I said, Dragon returns to be with her, and all is well again in the kingdom because the Wood is no longer looming over their heads as this evil force. The people and the trees are living in harmony.
I thought Novik’s book was more screwed up than I expected because the “character” of the Wood was genuinely well-written and unnerving, particularly the idea that even breathing the Wood’s air is enough to corrupt you, and then once corrupted, it’s like you’ve been possessed, and possession always freaks me out. The possession, the corruption of the shadows, makes you seem normal at first, but the next thing you know, the person returned from the Wood is slicing your throat and jumping into a river to drown themselves all with a joyful smile on their face. That’s creepy! Or the idea of being entombed, as it were, inside a tree, not exactly dead, but certainly, not alive. As Kasia, who only experienced it for a brief period of time explained, it was a fate worse than death.
I also liked Agnieszka’s character because the idea of her brand of magic being more akin to jazz, radical and revolutionary compared to the status quo of how magic was previously done, when she didn’t even think herself capable of any of it, was compelling and someone and something to “root,” for, as it were. I felt like, if you did want a romance, it would have made more sense to have her fall in love with Kasia because their relationship had way more chemistry and was better developed, as far as I was concerned. Heck, even before she fully understood her power, Agnieszka was willing to risk it all to save Kasia from the Wood and then later from death by trial at the king’s castle! I guess I was just rooting for Agnieszka and Kasia’s love to blossom beyond friendship.
Overall, if you’re looking for a fun fantasy book that takes you into another world, and is far creepier than you might expect, I’d give Novik’s novel, Uprooted, a whirl. I can’t resist saying … it’s spellbinding!