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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

What I’m Reading: Uprooted

Ahh, today is a review that is NOT months late because I just finished Uprooted by Naomi Novik last week.

I have read Novik in the past, but that was her Temeraire series.  Uprooted is a standalone, and one that was getting rave reviews from my fellow librarians and patrons. It was on many year end best lists. So I was determined to get through it before the end of the year.

Becky’s Soundbite Review:
“Based on a Polish folktale, but wholly its own magical story, Uprooted tells the story of Agnieszka, a poor rural girl who is chosen by The Dragon to be his student. What follows is an epic fantasy tale of good versus evil, with heroes and villains, kings and queens, good spirits and an evil Wood. This is also Agnieszka’s coming of age story. She must learn what it means to be a powerful witch, help her friends, save her community, and become an adult.  Be ready to be enveloped by Novik’s vivid world, make life-long friends with Agnieszka and her best friend Kasia, find romance, and go on an amazing adventure in this compelling and exciting tale." 
I did not give much of the set-up here that many reviews do because the set up was my least favorite part of this book. In fact, I had trouble getting into the book at the beginning with all The Dragon chooses a girl every 10 years stuff. Once Agnieszka was taken to his tower and she started showing a natural gift for magic, I was hooked.

The most important appeal factor in this novel is the world building. Wow is it great.  Every single place, from the villages, to the evil Wood, to the capitol city to just the tower where The Dragon lives were all amazing.  The descriptions were vivid and made each place come alive without slowing the pacing down at all.  If you like a detailed historical or fantasy setting, you will enjoy Uprooted

And yes I said historical or fantasy because most of the time to world of Uprooted felt historical. It could have been real except for the magic. It reminded me of Game of Thrones in that way, although I would not say they are readalikes in any other way.

Many reviews have said this book is a fairy tale retelling, or a fairy tale for adults. I disagree. It is much more an epic fantasy like a Tolkien. There is quite a lot for high fantasy fans here. The novel is filled with many story arcs where a smaller hurdle is cleared with high drama, before we move on to another conflict, each one building in intensity until we get to the final battle against the Wood and the safety of the entire world. A fairy tale tends to have one conflict leading to a single climax. The story map here had many ups and downs-- in a good way. Also, the villain here was way too complex for a fairy tale; it was much more of a concept than a single evil force.

Speaking of the Wood. What a great place/character. I don’t want to give much away but “the Wood” is the evil antagonist in this world. It is filled with evil that infects the people who live on it’s edges and those edges are constantly encroaching on the villages, swallowing many of them [and their inhabitants] up over the years.

The Wood is a nice bridge from the importance of place to the characters. Next to the world building, the characters are the next big selling point.  All of them are well drawn, complex and interesting-- good guys, bad guys, and in-between ones. But it is Agnieszka and the Dragon that rule the story.  Well, Agnieszka first. She is a strong, independent protagonist. She is young and naive at the outset, but she also knows herself and is true to what she believes. When she goes to live with the Dragon she has no idea the power she holds inside herself. Watching both of them discover it together is magical.

And plus, their romance is great and believable. There is one sex scene between them which is well done, but I have to say that the sensuous descriptions of their magic co-mingling and working a spell together were much hotter [on purpose I think].

I feel like this book is going to become a sure bet. It is good for men or women, teens to adults, people who love setting, plot, OR character. There is much to love in this standalone, epic fantasy.

Limiters:  There is one attempted rape scene, but Agnieszka battles him off and they confront each other later in the story. Amends are made.

Three Words That Describe This Book: strong world building, strong female protagonist, suspenseful

Readalikes: I couldn’t stop comparing Uprooted to The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern while I was reading. Both are filled with magic, romance, secrets, a larger evil to battle, and have action and great secondary characters. They also both are fantasy novels but with such well defined settings that you would swear they are more historical fiction that just happen to feature magic. Both are modern, standalone fantasy classics.

I tend to enjoy novels that have a fairy tale feel without being strict retellings. You can click through to each review in the list below to see why else they are similar (beyond the fairytale-esque feel) and to find even more readalikes. Warning: these links may take you down a large rabbit hole from which you will emerge with a very long TBR list.
But Uprooted still has something many of these suggestions lack-- a lot of action. Those other book are mostly literary fiction with fantasy aspects. But Uprooted is first and foremost a fantasy book with literary and historical elements. There were times the story resembled classic high fantasy a la Lord of the Rings. Interestingly, I went back to my review of His Majesty’s Dragons and I also suggested Tolkien there too.

For people who want to read some of the other “best” fantasy of 2015, two titles that are also making many best lists and would appeal to those who enjoyed Uprooted are The Aeornauts Windlass by Jim Butcher or The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin; however these are both the first in a series, while Uprooted is a standalone title.

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