In my review of N.K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season, I had mentioned Uprooted as one of the contenders for the 2016 Hugo Award. While it did not receive that honor, it's not without its accolades: it won the 2016 Nebula Award for Best Novel, the 2016 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, and the 2016 Mythopoeic Award in Adult Literature. It has also been optioned as a film by Warner Brothers, with Ellen DeGeneres producing. Needless to say, this book has been well-received. Author Naomi Novik, best known for her outstanding alternate history/fantasy series Temeraire (Napoleonic War with dragons), released a rarity last year in the world of fantasy: a stand-alone novel. Most fantasy books these days are part of a series, or introducing a new one. It has become harder and harder to find a book that stands on its own, with a complete plot contained within one story.
Uprooted tells the story of Agnieszka, a young woman who lives in the small village of Dvernik in the kingdom of Polnya. She has been chosen by a wizard, known only as The Dragon, to stay in his tower away from her family and village for ten years. Turns out he does this every decade, and afterwards lets the girls go. Nobody knows exactly why he does it, and the girls say that he doesn't touch or hurt them, but the girls (now women) all have one thing in common afterwards: they don't stay in their village for long. Something about them changes, and they leave their valley and settle elsewhere. The people of the valley allow this to continue, as the Dragon is the king's vassal and the most powerful wizard in the kingdom. He is also the only one that can defend the kingdom from the encroaching dangers of the Woods. Throughout the novel, we follow Agnieszka as she learns magic, visits the royal court, and works to save her friends, family, and country from the terror of the Woods.
Novik pulls inspiration from the Polish fairy tales her mother used to tell her growing up. The names of the cities, countries, and people are all Polish or Slavic-influenced, and even a particular monster comes directly from Slavic folklore. The fairy tale aspect is apparent in the story's themes and motifs, and yet it never feels as removed from reality as a real fairy tale would be. There are moments of horrific realism, especially in the amount of violence and depravity that Agnieszka witnesses throughout her adventure.
Uprooted is a story about connections. Agnieszka and the other characters are driven by the roots they have set down in their lives: Agnieszka's main motivator throughout the book is the safety of her friend Kasia, and the hope that she can return home to her family. Part of the inherent cruelty of the Dragon is that he exploits the connections the girls have to the valley, while he himself remains aloof and separate from all concerns. And yet, as he discovers, some of his strongest magic comes from working in tangent with Agniezka. In fact, all of the wizards have difficulty with connecting to others due to their ages and obsessions. Agnieszka, discovering that she is a witch, is horrified at the prospect of losing these connections as her friends and family grow old and die around her. Meanwhile, the Woods exploits these connections, turning friends and families against each other with the corruption, and feeding off the roots that others have lain in order to spread its malice.
There were times when I felt there could have been a bit more to the story, like getting a better sense of what Agnieszka sees in her friend Kasia (it's only briefly mentioned how they were childhood friends, but we don't see much of Kasia as a personality). Her connection with the Dragon is also problematic. The Dragon is an abusive, aloof, and constantly irritated individual, and Agnieszka's feelings towards him are complicated and confusing, even to the reader. That being said, Agnieszka is a fine narrator, and the book draws you in with its mysteries: why does the Dragon bring a girl to his tower to stay every ten years? What is the nature of the Woods? Can it be defeated? The beautiful writing is also a plus. I highly recommend this book, and I believe that Uprooted is a story that everyone should check out.