'Uprooted' - Book Review

by Naomi Novik
Del Rey, 440 pages

I loved Naomi Novik's "Temeraire" but immediately lost interest with the first sequel. Apparently a lot of people liked that universe, as she's written a string of nine novels in the series so far, the last in 2016. Temeraire showed that Novik is a good world-builder, and I was interested to see what she'd do when she finally entered a new world.

Uprooted is straight fantasy (the Temeraire series is fantasy set as historical fiction on our Earth). Agnieszka is a teen living in a small village threatened by "The Wood," which turns food poisonous and animals and people vicious. The valley she lives in is protected by a magician who takes a young woman once a decade as a tribute. Everyone knows that this year it'll be Agnieszka's best friend Kasia, who is poised and beautiful. But Agnieszka is taken instead because she has magical ability - which she didn't know about.

The book is about the ongoing fight to stop the spread of The Wood, made both better and worse by Agnieszka's unpredictable and developing skills. I really liked the world Novik built, but I was deeply frustrated both by Agnieszka's character and by the plot structure. Agnieszka goes "from the frying pan to the fire" about six times during the course of the book: there are no lulls, no let-up, all our characters perpetually on edge, and when Agnieszka does escape something it's always to an equally awful situation. And Agnieszka is so aggressively untrusting of just about everybody that it drove me nuts. She never learned to listen: people may lie to you, but if you refuse to listen at all you can't sort the lies from the truth. I get that she may be that way, but she didn't learn (and the lessons were thrown before her!) so there's no character change, no personal progress in our heroine.

After 420 pages of growing frustration with the structure and characters, the last 20 pages offered a better-than-expected resolution, but I didn't find it enough of a reward for wading through a relatively long story of not-so-smoothly-written characters.