A flash of light, the crackle of electricity, the smell of metal shavings, and taste of magic in the air sweet and powerful and sharp as a razor. DaVinci had his machines and Merlin his spells, but the Techno Wizards have both in perfect unison, a mystery even Mecha Dragons cannot understand. We know the magics of ink and of oil, and if you seek us, you will find us in our workshops, crafting a masterpiece.
Book 1: Uprooted
Uprooted is a 464 page fantasy novel by Naomi Novik tinged with Old World magic rooted in Polish fairy stories. It won the 2016 Nebula Award, 2016 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, the 2016 Mythopoeic Award, and was a 2016 Hugo Award finalist. It is available for purchase in most bookstores and online retailers. Given it’s award winning status, you can likely find it at your local library.
Agnieszka, the protagonist, lives in a valley bordered by a corrupted Wood that threatens to destroy the small villages living there, including her own. Brooding over it all is the Dragon, who demands a woman be handed over to serve him once every ten years in exchange for his services controlling the malevolent Wood. The next choosing day is coming soon and Agnieszka fears she will lose her best friend, the beautiful, talented, and fearless Kasia to the Dragon. She knows she cannot save Kasia, but little does she know that she fears the wrong things.
What did you think of the book’s setting?
Jeremiah: I really loved the book’s setting. It helps set the mood and atmosphere of the story.
Gretchen: Agreed. Since I grew up reading fairy tales from all over Europe (with Russian ones being some of my favorites), I felt right at home in the setting: an ominous wood, dueling kingdoms, small villages of commoners caught in the crossfire and an enigmatic wizard brooding in his tall white tower above them all. For the first part of the story, the wizard’s tower had a kind of Beauty and the Beast feel to it that I liked, though it made it harder to picture a tower instead of a sprawling mansion.
Andrea: I had a hard time imagining the Dragon’s tower. It sounds like a wholly impractical building. That said, the fairytale overtones continually pulled me back into the mysterious kingdom. We were given just enough information about the kingdom and the Wood to recognize its magical origins, which gave a sense of familiarity to the setting.
Mehek: I genuinely wish there had been a map in the beginning of this book. Because there are so many locations (the valley, the kingdom, the tower, etc.) it was easy to find oneself disoriented regarding geography. I feel like that would have made the world a lot easier to follow. I felt that the Wood was so richly build up, but I agree with Andrea the description tower was sort of lacking in how placement worked within the structure.
Michał: The setting felt very familiar to me. The names, the customs and even the geography, sort of. I couldn’t help but imagine the valley as placed in south-eastern Poland or Ukraine. There was also this blending of fairy tale and more realistic sort of story. The Wood is a place from a cautionary tale, but the ways people deal with it are starkly pragmatic and political.
Andrea: It strikes me that treating the Wood so pragmatically — a very explicit deal with the Dragon — is rare for a fantasy setting.
Gretchen: I really loved how alive and real the Wood felt. It was a character in and of itself from the first pages of the book as well as being part of the setting.
Mehek: Yes, it was just as much a character as the Dragon or Agnieszka
Michał: The Wood being a sort of Genius Loci was fascinating to me too. I really was curious to see if we’d find out more.
Jeremiah: I was fine. I’m tired of being told every little detail about every world I visit.
Gretchen: And when you think about fairy tales, a more vague setting is par for the course. It may not have worked for others, but it worked for me.
Andrea: The thing about the vague fairytale setting that is frustrating is that it depends on the setting staying small. That makes it feel less real to me.
Michał: I was fine with the amount of detail we got, myself. Maybe it’s because of the faux-Eastern European setting? I felt like our understanding grew with Agnieszka’s. She started out largely unaware of what happened outside the valley and then saw the bigger picture. Which wasn’t all that big, anyhow. Just Polnya, Rosya, and their back-and-forth on the border.
Jeremiah: Yeah. We were supposed to be in Agnieszka’s shoes and see the world through her eyes. So as the story went along, more and more details were filled in. After all she’s never left the village, so for her learning how big yet how small the world is was fitting.
Did the characters resonate with you? What did you think of them in general?
Andrea: Okay let’s get this out of the way: the Dragon isn’t really a dragon.
Mehek: That was really frustrating. I was waiting and waiting for him to shape-shift, or something.
Andrea: His personality was kind of like a dragon. He had a rough exterior and he breathed fire almost every time he opened his mouth.
Gretchen: I actually rather liked that he wasn’t a dragon. I expected a dragon for sure, but when I got a tall, grumpy wizard who likes his spells and his
cavern work room just so. I liked the twist.
Michał: I couldn’t help but imagine him as a wrinkled old man, instead of the young man he actually looked like. It’s because he acted like a cranky old academic.
Gretchen: For some reason, I spent half the book thinking he was bald XD.
Mehek: The whole age thing gave a weird Edward/Bella vibe to the relationship between the Dragon and Agnieszka.
Andrea: Agreed. Can this trope go away, please?
Gretchen: I totally get that vibe. The only difference for me, that made this less problematic is that Agnieska initiated every single instance of intimacy and sexual contact. The Dragon actually stayed away from her in this way and she led the relationship entirely. It felt far less predatory than Bella/Edward because Agnieszka was in charge, not the Dragon.
Andrea: However. The Dragon was a dick. He was rude and mean and while I don’t know if I’d use the word predatory I couldn’t understand why she would fall for someone who had so many bad things to say about her.
Gretchen: The way it was written, it felt very much like a product of the intimacy produced by doing magic together. Their first intimate encounter comes immediately after their first real success in doing magic, so it felt less like a romance and more like a working partnership that develops sexual undertones due to the nature of the work.
Michał: Agreed. The magic was mixed up in it strongly.
Andrea: I can definitely understand that. The emotional, visceral feeling of magic in this world was one of my favorite things.
Jeremiah: Was anyone else picking up a strong lesbian vibe Between Agnieszka and Kasia?
Gretchen: YES. SO MUCH.
Michał: Sure was.
Andrea: YES A LOT.
Mehek: “My eyes had only love for her” like, direct line. I was so disappointed when Kasia/Ang didn’t happen.
Michał: What would the ship name for that be?
Jeremiah: HA! Angelasia? I don’t know. I was just hoping and hoping I was getting a lesbian fairytale. I wasn’t unhappy with the hetero one I got, just a tad bitter.
Andrea: I suppose that is what fanfiction is for.
Michał: I like Agnia. Even if it sounds like another Polish name.
Gretchen: Speaking of Agnieszka, what did the rest of you all think of her as a protagonist and narrator? I really liked being in her head. She has a beautiful way of looking at the world.
Mehek: I’m not usually a huge fan of first person narrators, but this worked and made sense. I think third person would have made it hard to empathize. Also, it was amazing to see her caring for Kasia from an internal perspective rather than told about it in vague terms.
Michał: Agnieszka’s very down-to-earth perspective really carried the book, I agree. I particularly liked the references to senses other than sight – the smells, especially. It’s rare in fiction, but really rounds off a description of a scene.
Gretchen: I like how the story unfolds much like she describes her magic: as wandering in the Wood. Agnieszka goes by feeling and instinct both in magic and in how she experiences the narrative, so it can be kind of hard to read sometimes because while she has a general sense of where she’s going, she doesn’t know the details and doesn’t look for them.
Andrea: That’s a great metaphor.
Michał: Normally, a protagonist’s magic being “instinctual” and “natural” as opposed to the academic learners sets my teeth on edge. Uprooted makes it work.
Gretchen: The conflict felt less like a good way/bad way to do magic and more like two different ways.
Michał: I don’t think anyone was at all surprised Prince Marek turned out to be a gigantic douchebag. He screamed “terrible person with good PR” from his first appearance.
Gretchen: LOL. True. I have to give a shoutout to Alosha for best tertiary character though, a witch smith who pounds spells into magic swords and is a woman of color? LOVE HER. I NEED MORE OF HER.
Michał: I did like a whole other perspective on magic than that of the Dragon and Agnieszka. Neither of them was much of a crafter.
What didn’t work with the novel?
Jeremiah: My biggest beef with the book was the ending. Not the climax, that part was awesome and amazing. But I don’t know, I didn’t NOT like it, it just felt like it was just adding a coda for coda’s sake.
Gretchen: I do understand what you mean. I typically hate epilogues, I didn’t mind this one as it didn’t overly resolve anything. It more just gave us a look into what life is like now.
Michał: I had no problems with the epilogue. It gave the feeling of the story not really ending. Life goes on, especially for wizards who can live for centuries. The story’s over, but the characters are still there.
Gretchen: Its lack of diversity is my only major criticism, both racially and in terms of LGBT+ characters. (Would it have been so hard to make one or more of the three main characters a minority?)
Mehek: It was honestly kind of jarring that it didn’t feel like there was any diversity in this? I read a lot of LGBT+/racially diverse fiction and it felt almost glaring with the absence.
Jeremiah: Well, there’s that part where Agnieszka is talking to Alosha, the wizard who gave her the sword, and she mentions something about how she’s mixed race, and I was kind of taken aback because that was the first time I had remembered anyone not being read as white in the book.
Gretchen: Alosha being mixed race or Agnieszka? Alosha is first described as having “ebony-dark skin” (p.243), so she was the only person of color I noticed in the book.
Jeremiah: Alosha. Maybe it was just my whiteness but I missed or misread the description of Alosha. I didn’t realize she was black or mixed until she was talking about her ancestry with Agnieszka.
Gretchen: She’s the only one, though, so like Mehek, I felt a bit jarred by the lack of diverse characters. And then you have the undertones between Kasia/Agnieszka that I wish were followed through on.
Jeremiah: Agreed. If I had to come up with a subtitle for this book it would be: “Not the Lesbian Fairy Tale You Were Hoping For”.
Gretchen: Ha! You’re not wrong, though.
Mehek: I feel like lesbianism would have increased my enjoyment of this book a lot. I enjoyed the book the farther in I got, but the first 150 odd pages just didn’t hold for me. It felt like the first third, the pacing was so slow, and by the time it got going we were so far in. I also felt like the through line kept getting lost. It was very episodic, and didn’t feel like the novel came together as a whole until the last fifth or so.
Michał: The weakest part was the court, to me. Agnieszka’s tribulations as a country girl in a royal court weren’t as fresh as the rest of the book. Just a rather well-worn story archetype.
Gretchen: Yep. The catty woman of the court trying to make Agnieszka look stupid was annoying and added nothing to the story overall. Thankfully it was only a couple of pages.
Andrea: I just have to say again that the romance did not work for me. The Dragon is an archetype I’m sick of seeing in romance stories. He’s brooding, somehow brilliant, and rude to everyone, but he’s inexplicably fascinated by the unlikely, reader-insert heroine, and his rudeness is somehow a sign of affection. I think it’s an unhealthy model that is far, far too common. I would have preferred to see them develop a mutually respectful working partnership. Now that would be something you don’t see every day: a powerful man using his position to promote a young woman’s success without any kind of romantic entanglement.
Mehek: The romance did not hold at all for me. It made infinitely more sense for either Kasia/Agnieszka to get together.
Gretchen: I guess I didn’t see it being so a romance between the Dragon and Agnieszka. I saw a working partnership develop into sexual interactions, but romance? I didn’t really feel much there, nor did I think it was specifically written to be romantic.
Michał: I didn’t really see the Dragon’s rudeness as a sign of affection. He was rude, but that was because he’s a bitter old man at heart. And it was something he had to get over… but didn’t, really. The romance was pretty lukewarm for me too.
Andrea: Gretchen has hit on an interesting distinction that I hadn’t thought of. Is this supposed to be romance? Or is it just sex? (I think I am brainwashed to assume sex = romance in fiction, but of course, that’s not true.)
Michał: That is a very good point, one I haven’t considered.
Gretchen: I think a part of it is that the relationship (whatever it is) is told entirely from her perspective, and she does not seem to have romantic thoughts around their sexual encounters. The sex scenes are well written, though, and entirely female focused, which I appreciate so much.
Jeremiah: I really loved the second sex scene if for nothing else it had a sense of fun and humor to it. Too often sex is taken waaay too seriously and can get a little melodramatic.
What Did Work in the Novel?
Mehek: I think what worked, ultimately, was the lore and the first person narration. There was a real richness to the world and description, and despite grievances with specific characters and their choices, the world holds up really well. And Agnieszka is likable and relatable enough to pull you through without falling into too many tropes.
Gretchen: I totally agree. Agnieszka is a really nice head to exist in and she really sets the tone for how rich and vibrant the world can be even if it is threatened by the Wood. Speaking of which, for me, the slow revelation of the Wood, both its character and its purposes, is beautifully done. When you crack open the first pages, you don’t expect to end up where you do with the Wood. It’s not easy to surprise me with storytelling these days (I’ve read too many books), but Uprooted took me on a journey I didn’t see coming in the best way.
Andrea: I agree with everything you are saying. I also will say that I thought the story was very well constructed: I never got bored with the story or got frustrated with the pacing.
Jeremiah: As I mentioned before, I really loved the language. It flowed nicely and did the job of creating the need to see what the end of the sentence was. Which is not as easy or as common as you would think. I loved the sort of “on the road” narrative as well. It lacked a three act structure and was more just a really well done travelogue; with events happening because of other things and not just seemingly random.
Gretchen: That’s a great way to put it, Jeremiah; travelogues are some of my favorite stories.
Jeremiah: I love travelogues as well but they are hard to do and not many people can pull them off. Like I said all the events happen ‘because of’ something and not just ‘and then…and then…and then…”.
Gretchen: Precisely. You might be wandering in the woods, but you know exactly how you got where you are even if you can’t entirely see where you’re going next.
Michał: What the others said is something I can agree with, so I’d like to throw in something from my own perspective… I genuinely smiled when I saw Agnieszka recite old lullabies, about Baga Jaga’s house of butter, and the princess who fell in love with a musician. Those are songs my mother and grandmother sang to me, and it was a very strange experience to see them in the book, translated to English. The world Uprooted presented felt very real to me, precisely because of things like that. I was reading a fantasy novel, but I felt at home.
Andrea: I think I would recommend this book to anyone who likes fairytales and fantasy. It’s not in my top ten, but it’s an enjoyable story with a great premise.
Gretchen: Uprooted is a rich, vivid, and gripping fairy tale story. With so many fairy tale adaptations making the rounds, I didn’t think it was possible to provide a new angle. Novik proved me wrong. The linguistic use of Polish, or Polish-ish, is a welcome deviation from the standard Latinate spellwork of much fantasy literature (looking at you Harry Potter). The tale can be a bit obtuse and confusing in the first third, but that’s more of a nitpick than a huge criticism. I like being surprised by books and that rarely happens; the fact that Uprooted managed to do so has won it a place in my heart. (Side Note: I just have to say that Novik writes one of the most beautiful descriptions of a female orgasm I’ve ever read). This is going in my top ten for fantasy novels, for sure.
Jeremiah: I really loved this book. Yes, I spent half time rooting for a relationship that was never going to happen, but I still loved the book. I even checked out another book by Novik. I loved the specificity of place and culture, I loved the language and the way it flowed. I don’t have a top ten for books but I would totally recommend this to anyone who likes fantasy/fairy tales/modern folk tales.
Mehek: I found Uprooted to be an easy to empathize with novel. The main character feels real in her stumbling blocks and reactions, and I think there is a genuine likability to her. My overall thoughts on it are mixed, in both enjoying the perspective, but finding the plot to be meandering, in liking the main character and finding it easy to empathize with her, but finding her counterpoint, The Dragon, frustrating.
This book managed to take the reader on a journey that was unexpected, and the unpredictable nature of the narrative made it a worthy read. While I found it a slow start, by the end I wanted to read as fast as I could to find out what happened next. If you are looking for a fantasy fairy tale that throws a few curve balls, I’d give this a read.
Michał: I wasn’t really sure what to expect going in, but I greatly enjoyed what I found. Uprooted is a mix of fairy tale and stark realism, of magic and mundanity, all packed into a wrapping of Polish folk culture. It flows together into a fantasy world that feels real and that you can immerse yourself in, and the plot manages to keep you on the edge of your seat with a feeling of urgency.