Bite-Sized Book Reviews: “Uprooted”

As you’ve likely sussed out by now, I’m a fan of reading. But rare is the book that tempts me to sacrifice my own writing time. It’s been ten months since that last occurred. (That siren was Kate Forsyth’s The Wild Girlwhich I review here). But Naomi Novik’s Uprooted called too sweetly to be resisted. I wound up rolling two hours of writing time into the weekend, because I blew them off on Thursday to finish the book.

That wasn’t the only irresponsible thing I did, either. I stayed up until 1 AM, when I had to be into work by 7:30. I thought I’d skim just a few pages before I did my post-work lap-swimming… I wound up reading in the pool locker room for an hour. Uprooted was that compulsively readable; I had to know what happened next. And I definitely wasn’t confident about how it would end: I could see the author taking the triumphant track, or the bittersweet one. (But no spoilers here–you’ll have to read it yourself to find out!)That’s not to say it’s a perfect book. (Much as it pains writer-me to confess this, there’s no such thing. And of course, books are incredibly personal–that’s part of their magic. No two people read a novel the same way.) Novik portrays a lot of “pale” people. The language, usually lyrical, occasionally turns overwrought. The protagonist’s friend is almost too perfect, threatening to overshadow the central character. And although the protagonist’s relationship with her mentor softens sufficiently for my taste, I can see where some readers might take issue.

But the plot carries the reader on a current, drawing you inward and onward, much as the novel’s river–The Spindle–sweeps through the tale. Uprooted follows Agnieszka, a girl chosen to serve for 10 years a wizard called the Dragon–payment for his indispensable service of guarding her valley from the malevolent Wood lurking along its edge. But the story winds in more complex loops, with broader implications, than is suggested by its premise.

The world-building is also fantastic–atmospheric, beautiful, and eerie. This isn’t a feat easily accomplished, as many novelists neglect world-building in favor of story and character. Reviews of Uprooted are spot-on in crediting it with the feel of a modern fairytale. It possesses that elixir of darkness and beauty, like that curled at the heart of the Grimm tales we love best.

In many stories featuring a fierce evil, that evil grows more anemic as we learn more about it, since what we imagine is usually worse than what we can define. But the more you learn of Novik’s insidious Wood, the more horrifying it grows. One easily comprehends why the heroes will sacrifice anything to defeat it… and why defeating it is virtually impossible. This isn’t a novel whose stakes are vague, or unconvincing. The reader knows just how terrible it will be, should the heroes fail.

Uprooted also provides rather poignant insights into the human soul. There’s an honesty in her unfolding of her characters, with nuances tucked within the sketches of their natures. Hidden jealousies and hatreds come to the fore, with none of her figures being simplistically good or wicked. There are well-meaning characters whose pride may undo a nation. There are brutish figures whose child-like need for maternal love leads them into foolish choices. These threads, twining through Uprooted’s page-turning plot, add something special.

In short: I’d highly recommend Uprooted… but only when you can clear your schedule for a one-sitting read.

(PS–I’m always intrigued when a novel winds up with widely varying cover designs. Which is your favorite?)

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