If you go down to the Wood today...
Naomi Novik takes a break from her Napoleonic- Wars- with- dragons series with this standalone fantasy.
Release Date: 21 May
440 pages | Hardback/ ebook Author: Naomi Novik Publisher: Macmillan
Popularity has its
drawbacks. Like film stars, authors get typecast: whether it’s a bestselling series, a much- loved ( or loathed) protagonist, or a specific mode of writing, they can be victims of their own success, as publishers and readers alike clamour for more of the same. Some resort to pseudonyms to write in a different genre, whether that be JK Rowling publishing crime fiction as Robert Galbraith, or Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden creating urban fantasy as Megan Lindholm and epic fantasy as Robin Hobb. A few authors – like George RR Martin – even get roundly abused by sections of their fanbase for daring to so much as think about doing something that takes time away from the book their “brand” is linked with.
Nothing so extreme for Naomi Novik, thankfully. But having called a halt to the bestselling ( and enormously fun) Temeraire series after nine books of Napoleonic dragon action, she’s ensured that there’s a weight of expectation attached to her first novel outside that world. Inspired by the folktales that Novik heard as a child from her Polish mother, Uprooted has what appears, at first, to be a fairly simple premise. In a valley beside a scary enchanted forest ( sorry, Wood), there lives a wizard in a tower and a girl in a village. Once every ten years, said wizard plucks out a 17- year- old girl from the villages under his protection, and takes her to his tower to act as his companion and sort- of servant. As the novel opens, the ten- year cycle is up once again, and our heroine Agnieszka just happens to be 17. Everyone’s convinced that pretty, brave and accomplished Kasia will be taken as tribute, not her clumsy and unremarkable best friend Agnieszka, but… we all know where this one’s going, don’t we?
It transpires that Agnieszka has unrecognised magical talent, and the wizard – known as the Dragon – is duty- bound to train her up. Wizard and reluctant apprentice bicker, exchange glares, misunderstand one another, and gradually start to make beautiful magic together; various trials and dangers related to the Wood enable Agnieszka to grow in confidence and ability, and start to prove herself.
That magic is vivid and visceral. We get a clear sense of its physical toll upon its users and its targets, through both characters’ experiences and beautiful, brutal imagery; crafting spells is likened variously to music, cooking, sex and violence, and Novik’s deft use of figurative language brings the whole thing to stunning life. There are trees that absorb people into their trunks, coating them in sticky sap and hard- as- nails bark while they eat their victims’ personalities from the inside out. An expensive type of fire- starting potion is so gleefully keen to burn things that it tries to push its way out of the vial if you’re foolish enough to open it too far. Novik’s magic reads, in short, like a sort of cross between dreaming, storytelling, and taking hallucinogenic drugs.
Within the framework of this tale, there’s a lot more going on. The story twists and turns in ways that grow organically from the characters’ personalities and relationships, and are closely integrated with the world- building. This world has cultural depth as well as landscape and a magic system: the story emerges in part from the dynamics of interdependence and conflict between elite and peasantry, capital and province, humanity and nature; the tensions of Agnieszka’s ambiguous position as an unmarried woman living alone with an older man hamper her interactions with villagers and courtiers alike, as people repeatedly underestimate her, assuming she’s the Dragon’s mistress. Thematic and plot links between Wood, village and palace unfold in ever more satisfying and complex ways as the novel progresses. This is a richly satisfying read: cleverly plotted, colourfully imaginative, and sharply interesting in the moral dilemmas it poses its characters. Nic Clarke Uprooted was influenced by Novik’s favourite Polish fairytale from when she was a girl: “Agnieszka Piece Of The Sky”.
Cleverly plotted and colourfully imaginative