Book Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik. Polish Fairy Tales, Baba Yaga, and Romantic Consent

I tend to only write book reviews when a book really riles me up, either for good or bad reasons. In the case of Uprooted, it’s other reviewers who have done this and so I feel the need to throw in my views on what I thought was actually a reasonably good book.

Naomi Novik Uprooted Hardback
My friend bought me this hardback edition for Christmas & it’s SO PRETTY.

So, before y’all be reading other reviews & getting put off, let me clear a few things up.

GENERIC SPOILER DISCLAIMER! Just in case. I don’t think there any – not major ones, anyway.

Firstly, potted synopsis: Uprooted is a standalone adult fantasy novel (which is one of the reasons I loved it – everything seems to be a damn trilogy or epic saga these days! A standalone is so refreshing!), about a young woman named Agnieszka who gets chosen by a reputable wizard known as ‘the Dragon’ to live in his tower and learn magic. They don’t always get along, but work well together and put aside their differences to stop the evil spread by the Wood, a sentient, malignant forest, filled with merciless creatures who snatch people and corrupt their minds.

Now onto my rant…

From reading reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, there are two things which keep coming up:

  1. Agnieszka having a horrific case of  ‘special snowflake syndrome’
  2. Agnieszka’s relationship with the Dragon being abusive

I’m not going to try and deny the first one, but I will say there’s more to Agnieszka than this. She is such a special snowflake (and the fact that her name is Agnieszka doesn’t help, when none of the other characters are called such mouthfuls). Initially, she is like most other teenage girls in novels: ordinary in appearance, ditsy, non-conforming, and prone to making mistakes. As opposed to the other girls in her village, in particular her best friend Kasia, who are well-dressed, tidy, and perfect at dancing, cooking, and household tasks. But of course, despite this, the Dragon chooses Agnieszka. Later we learn it’s because she’s a witch and he’s trying to teach her magic. Something else to add to her specialness. Of course Agnieszka hates magic, and the tasks the Dragon sets her. So instead, she does random things like sing lullabies and somehow they become insanely powerful spells. She finds a book in the library which the Dragon (who is considered to be one of the most learned and powerful wizards in the land) cannot use, and instantly she’s casting everything in it and getting perfect results. Because y’know, she’s special.

I didn’t hate Agnieszka (just her bloody name), but initially I found her boring and quite stereotypical. Then she becomes a bit annoying, because everything she does is suddenly amazing with no real explanation why. But to her credit, she’s also very brave, resourceful, and determined. She’s not afraid to act, and won’t let anyone (especially the Dragon) tell her what she can and can’t do when it comes to fighting the Wood and protecting her loved ones. So despite being a special snowflake, she’s also got a lot of spirit which made me give her the benefit of the doubt.

Nelleke Around the Corner
This is sort of what I imagined the Wood to be like whilst reading. Photograph by Nelleke Pieters.

Regarding her name, Novik explains in the back that she choose Agnieszka because it’s from one of her favourite fairy tales, a Polish story called Agnieszka Skrawek Neiba (Agnieszka Piece of the Sky) written by Natalia Gałczyńska. Sadly I haven’t yet been able to find anywhere to read this story, but this website has a good synopsis of it. It’s in Polish, but Google Translate works wonders! It’s about a young girl called Agnieszka who lives near a dangerous forest, which claimed the life of her parents. Therefore, she believes the people living on the other side of the forest are evil. Then there’s a whole lot of events with a cow, a hero, and a fairy godmother which I can’t quite recount coherently because of the dodgy translation, but in the end Agnieszka’s grandmother is given some beautiful blue cloth by the fairy godmother. She makes a dress out of it for Agnieszka to wear, and because of its colour she looks like a part of the sky. The fairy godmother tells Agnieszka that the people on the other side of the forest are just like them, so she goes into the forest. There she finds an army of sleeping men, and repeats what the fairy godmother told her and this wakes them up. Then she journeys to the other side of the forest, and sees that the people there are good and in reality the forest was only evil because both sides perceived it to be. This resonates strongly with the plot of Uprooted, and from knowing these little snippets of the fairy tale I can clearly see how Novik used is as her inspiration and has done a wonderful job of fleshing it out into a full novel.

Novik cites it as being from a collection called O Wróżkach i Czarodziejach (The Fairies and Wizards), which contains stories actually based on French fairy tales. So there’s probably a French equivalent of Agnieszka Skrawek Neiba somewhere. If anyone knows more about this story, please let me know in the comments because I am very interested!

Natalia Gałczyńska Agnieszka Skrawek Neiba
The collection of Polish fairy tales by Natalia Gałczyńska. The girl in the purple/blue dress is Agnieszka. Image from Natalia Gałczyńska’s website.

Uprooted also frequently references made to a mysterious old witch who roamed in the Wood who was known as ‘Baba Jaga.’ It is her book which Agnieszka finds in the Dragon’s library, and although it’s accepted that she was real her name has fallen into legend. It’s not hard to see a correlation between her and the Russian folklore character Baba Yaga.

Baba Yaga
In Russian folklore, Baba Yaga is a witch who lives in the forest. She an be good or bad – either way a meeting with her is always fateful. She lives in a hut on chicken legs, surrounded by a fence made out of the bones of her victims. Image from Parks Facts.

As for the Agnieszka’s relationship with the dragon, wow. Just wow.

The Dragon is very set in his ways, and at first he doesn’t seem to like Agnieszka intruding. His way of speaking is brusque and often rude. However, beyond this, his actions are wholly good. He is dedicated to fighting the Wood, and once he sees Agnieszka’s potential he’s willing to help her. He doesn’t hold her back, and he supports her different style of magic albeit in a begrudging manner. Mostly because he’s rather arrogant and doesn’t like that she can do things which he can’t, but he gets over it and helps her anyway. He’s never actively mean to Agnieszka – it’s just his personality. He treats everyone the same, and he’s very specific about how he likes thing to be done and Agnieszka is just too wild for him to comprehend. But as the novel progresses, he relents. An effortless, practical relationship builds up between them as they work together to cast spells and remove the Wood’s corruption. He supports Agnieszka through his actions rather than words. Towards the end when she’s hell-bent on going into the Wood to end things once and for all, he unquestionably goes with her. He fights besides her, and puts himself in danger to save her life.

Naomi Novik Uprooted cover
US hardback/paperback cover. Also pretty.

There’s also one important word where relationships are concerned, which seems to have been forgotten in other reviews:

Consent.

As the dictionary says…

consent definition

Basically, lots of mutual agreement. When the Dragon and Agnieszka eventually get physical, consent is definitely present. Not once does the Dragon force himself upon her. Okay, if you’ve read it I know the scene you’re thinking of but for goodness sake! That was when he believed Agnieszka had been sent to spy on him and destroy his work, so of course he attacked her! It wasn’t sexually motivated, and once he realises his mistake he doesn’t lay another finger on her. Get some perspective! Sometimes characters are violent towards each other. Other characters do far worse things to Agnieszka, and the only reason they don’t come under fire from reviewers is because she doesn’t end up romantically involved with them. However, the Dragon does make the first move, and SHE RECIPROCATES. Then she makes her own move by CHOOSING to visit him in the middle of the night and well, you can guess how that pans out. And MUTUAL CONSENT is present.

The Dragon is sometimes verbally abusive, I’ll give you that, but Agnieszka shows no response to his jibes other than to ignore them and carry on. She’s not upset at all. Besides, actions speak louder than words, and like I already said the Dragon more than makes up for anything he says by showing Agnieszka that he cares for her. I totally ship them. Just because their relationship is a bit disjointed and based on desire rather that the mushy, true-love-conquers-all stuff you usually see in fantasy novels (especially YA), doesn’t mean that they don’t care for each other or that it’s not credible.

Naomi Novik Uprooted paperback
UK paperback cover, released May 2016. Every cover of this book is gorgeous!

Overall, Uprooted is a solid, refreshing fantasy novel. It has a steady pace, excellent cause and effect which keeps the story moving, and there are no lose ends or unanswered questions. It’s a complete, feasible story which reflects its source material well whilst also giving it an original spin. If you want engrossing standalone fantasy, this is it. If you want romance… it’s there, but without the fluff. And that’s perfectly okay.

 

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Amelia Starling is a writer and folklorist. She graduated from the University of Winchester with a degree in Creative Writing, and is Senior Editor for Folklore Thursday. She loves travelling and collecting stories, and spent 15 months living in Japan doing this alongside teaching English. Amelia blogs about folklore and fairy tales at The Willow Web. You can follow her on Twitter @amyelize.

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