I told one person I was looking for fantasy recommendations and got a massive reading list. Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series was also recommended, but I won’t review all nine books here. Most books in a series share common strengths/pitfalls so I’ll do a big round-up post if/when I finish. In the meantime, I read Novik’s Uprooted which is wonderful for being one, self-contained book and not another series. At 439 pages, it’s not even long for its genre.
The beginning is formulaic. A local wizard, the Dragon, collects a girl once per decade and this time he selects the narrator, Agnieszka. She was 100% positive he’d choose her best friend, Kasia, but if that were going to happen then she’d be the narrator. Fortunately, this section doesn’t drag too long and Agnieszka takes up residence in the tower:
I didn’t even have a chance to turn around and say a last good-bye before he turned back and took my arm by the wrist. Only Kasia moved; I looked back at her and saw her about to reach for me in protest, and then the Dragon jerked me impatiently and ungently stumbling after him, and dragged me with him back into thin air. (13)
Page 13! Maybe my former issue with fantasy is that I read too many badly-paced novels. Things with the Dragon go how you’d expect: He’s crusty and short, impatient with the uncouth, unpolished girl he’s dragged across his doorstep. I eagerly await the day I don’t have to read pages and pages about how the female narrator doesn’t like skirts/dresses and other stereotypically feminine aspects. It’s as annoying to read a stereotypical female character as her exact opposite—both are built on the same foundation of treating gender as a personality type.
Once out of predictable territory, Uprooted shines. The threat—the Wood, which infects people with contagious, feral madness—is genuinely terrifying. When a key ally is “saved,” the tension around whether or not they’re legitimately cured is maintained until the final pages. I was up until 4am to finish because I could see the end going either way. Fantasy novels earn a lot of leeway when they’ve got a a terrifying threat/villain—it wouldn’t have felt contrived if they were saved, and it would have been a deserved victory if they were. In between magic lessons, Agnieszka and the Dragon try to find ways of destroying the Wood. Earned endings can’t be taken for granted in Chosen One books. On some level, the reader trusts that the Chosen One is in no actual danger. It’s hard to convince a reader that the Big Bad is dangerous when it’s one clean shot from destruction (usually in the penultimate chapter).
The seemingly straightforward quest of Defeating the Wood takes on new dimensions as the Dragon and Agnieszka learn new and horrifying details about its capabilities. In response, Agnieszka’s skills develop at a good clip. She’s always outmatched, but when she tries something new it’s not out of left-field. She takes the basics and builds them organically; there’s more room to grow when different magical styles are taken into account (all wizards have their own flair). It’s a bit like Harry Potter if he’d leaned less heavily on Expelliarmus and his own exceptionalism. And I say that as someone who liked Harry Potter!
The friendship between Agnieszka and Kasia is the best bit of the book (part of what gives the ending its heft), but the relationship between Agnieszka and the Dragon is… I’m not going to say I didn’t love it, but I don’t need a spoiler tag to tell you they get together. He’s exactly the kind of curt and crusty to be swayed by her warm and hapless demeanor.
4.5 (out of 5.0) I forgive most of the predictable moments because the Wood is downright creepy. There’s also a reveal that is so brilliantly pitch-perfect that I’ve asked a few friends to read this book just so we can discuss this amazing moment.
Image credit: Amazon