Uprooted was the Deliberate Reader book club title for June, and out of all the ones slated for the year, it was the one I was most looking forward to reading. It had such good reviews and had been on me to-read list for a while, plus I always love a good fantasy. And let me tell you:
This book was absolutely stunning.
Based in a fantasy that's grounded in Eastern rather than Western Europe, with a heroine named Agnieszka and mentions of Baba Yaga (Baba Jaga), it's a beautiful story about a valley and the girl who saves it. Agnieszka expects her best friend, Kaisa, to be taken by the Dragon, the magician who is lord over her home valley and who takes a girl every ten years for purposes unknown. The girls return unharmed but are obviously ruined and end up leaving the valley, always. But when the time for the choosing comes, the Dragon takes Agnieszka instead, based on what appears to be a budding ability for magic...magic that is desperately needed to keep the Wood, the dark forest that corrupts all it touches and that slowly encroaches on their realm, at bay.
Some reviewers have called Agnieszka a special snowflake. Well, she kind of is. She has magic, magic that she has an intuition for as soon as she realizes what it really is that no one seems to have ever seen before. However, Novik makes it clear through her writing that just because Agnieszka's magic isn't the kind that's in use among the magicians of the realm currently, that doesn't mean it hasn't been seen before, and that it's her connection to the valley that helps to make it so strong. And Agnieszka is such a likeable character, too. She's not all sunshine and rainbows; she acknowledges a deep jealousy of Kaisa despite her love of her friend, and she struggles with finding things out even though she sometimes has an intuition for them. Less imminently likeable is the Dragon. He's stubborn and mean and seems to be keeping his distance for no apparent reason, except that he is, because if he gets too close to the valley and its inhabitants it's possible the Wood could draw him in, and that would be something terrible indeed. Woven into both of their characters is, of course, the magic system of the book as well. In one respect, it revolves around foreign-sounding spellwords, which isn't something terribly innovative, but there are other dimensions, too, which means that it doesn't work the same for every person and each magician featured has their own talents; it seems like any other magician here would have just as easily been deemed a "special snowflake" as Agnieszka, in their own way.
There's a very, very minor romance subplot here that was absolutely delicious, mainly because the sorcerer/apprentice dynamic is one of my favorites (but notably does not extend to other teacher/student relationships, which I find downright creepy). It's woven so well into the story as a whole, though it did mean that when Agnieszka went away from the valley for a while it read as being a lot slower because there wasn't that developing relationship, even though a lot of interesting and important things actually happened while she was in the city. And outside the realm of romantic and teaching relationships, Kaisa remains a prominent characters throughout the book, which I didn't expect but really liked. She becomes such an important person to show the potential and terror of magic and the Wood, and though she and Agnieszka and and Kaisa don't always get along and have their envies of each other, their friendship is deep and true and the book wouldn't have shone nearly as much without it.
The writing is beautiful, the story has good pacing and unfurls in a way that the odds seem insurmountable--I was honestly skeptical that Novik would be able to wrap this up in one book! The end of the action did seem a bit rushed to me, but there was a wonderful denouement afterwards that wrapped up the characters' paths and left such potential for more.
Someone please point me to the fanfiction archive for this book, because I need more, and I need it now.
5 stars out of 5.