Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Agnieszka has grown up in a quiet valley.  She is content with her lot, despite The Wood that lies close by.  The Wood is dangerous, and held by a malevolent power.  Anyone who enters is either never seen again or comes back changed, full of the corruption of The Wood.  They cannot be cured.

The valley is protected by an aloof wizard known only as Dragon, but he demands a high price for watching over them – every ten years, he takes a seventeen year old girl to his tower where she stays for the next ten years.  At the end of this tenure, she is free to go and to return to her village.  But the women always come back changed, and soon move away from their home and family to start a new life elsewhere.

The novel opens in the year of a new choosing, and everyone knows that brave, beautiful Kasia (Agnieszka’s best friend) will be chosen.  Kasia is everything that Agnieszka is not – graceful as opposed to clumsy, confident instead of unsure, brave rather than timid.  Except this is a novel, and the choosing does not go as expected.

Uprooted lies somewhere between a fantasy and a fairy tale, and includes all of the darker elements that traditional fairy tales entail.  Starting this, I was a little worried that it would be prosaic; there are many elements that are common to the fantasy genre – an unassuming villager plucked out of her home, a mysterious wizard etc.  I’m pleased to say that it wasn’t like that at all – this is an original story and brilliantly done.  There is no sudden ‘This was always your destiny’ revelation later on, and Agnieszka doesn’t suddenly transform into a perfect being – she remains clumsy and unsure of herself, despite learning a great deal in a short space of time.

And Agnieszka is a wonderful character, just trying to do her best in unfamiliar and difficult circumstances.  She’s a plucky heroine, and you can’t help but cheer her on.  Novik’s other characters are also well developed.  There aren’t any good or bad guys – everyone possesses both positive and negative character traits.

This is one of my favourite books of the year so far.

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