If you go down to the Wood to­day...

SFX - - Rated -

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

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