Naomi Novik, author of the fantasy/alternate history Temeraire series, has branched out into another subgenre of fantasy with her most recent novel, Uprooted. It starts like a classic fairy tale: a peasant girl named Agnieszka is sent to work as a household servant for the local lord, who also happens to be a powerful wizard. Over time, she becomes his apprentice, and must find unknown reserves of talent and courage within herself when strange creatures from a malevolent forest threaten her home village. But the book goes beyond that fairy tale framework to prevent a story with complexity and depth.
One of the things I really enjoyed about Uprooted was the setting. Most fantasy novels present a world that bears strong resemblances to medieval Western Europe, but while the world of Uprooted is medieval, it has more of an Eastern European flavor. The names of the characters, the kinds of clothing they wear, and the foods they eat, all reinforce this aspect of the setting. The names of the two major countries in the region are Polnya and Rosya—close enough to Poland and Russia that I wondered whether this book is meant to be compatible with the Temeraire series (though it seems to take place in an earlier historical period).
I also appreciated the way Agnieszka’s magic is described. Her form of magic is more instinctive and fluid than the regimented system used by most other wizards. She consistently sets her incantations to songs—lullabies, work songs, and songs that are used to pass on traditional stories.
As far as plot goes, Uprooted was engrossing. I was continually wanting to turn the next page to find out what happened next. I found myself speculating about what the characters would do, what the nature of the mysterious intelligence behind the Wood was, and so on.
The one quibble I had with this book is that Novik sometimes overused the same few words to describe characters. “Hard,” for example, is often used to describe the faces of a couple of characters, and while it’s a fitting word for the circumstances, it’s repeated often enough to become tedious. The same is true for using the word “panting” to describe a character who’s become exhausted by physical or magical exertion. This is a relatively minor nitpick, however. Overall, this is probably my favorite of the books I’ve read so far this year.