Tuesday, April 28, 2015


It has been a few weeks (I know, that is now practically the byline of this blog), but I recently read Uprooted, by Naomi Novik, and enjoyed it very much. There seem to be conflicting ideas out there about whether it's young adult fiction or not, but though it shares similar elements with YA, like a 17-year-old heroine and a fantastical storyline, I think it's more in the realm of regular fantasy, which also often has younger protagonists.

In this tale of wizards and an evil Wood, Agnieszka has a penchant for tangling with nature. Leaves, dirt, and other messes all seem to gravitate to her, and she can find plants others can't. But in her corner of the world, nature is not something one wishes to tangle with. Agnieszka's village is near the Wood, where poisonous plants and evil creatures can taint and destroy you with your smallest intake of breath or the barest scratch. A wizard called the Dragon keeps the Wood at bay and protects the nearby villages at the price of one maiden every ten years, and it's time to pick again. He chooses girls with talent and beauty, so Agnieszka knows she is safe. He will not pick her.

The Dragon is old in years and temperament, but youthful in appearance. He is shallow and petty when it comes to beauty, but powerful in magic. Preferring solitude, he avoids the politics of the kingdom as much as possible until the prince seeks the Dragon's help to find his mother, whose loss to the Wood fueled a war. When Agnieszka is thrown into the midst of the kingdom's politics, between war and the Wood, she finds herself surrounded by danger on all sides, her only hope lying in the most dangerous path of all.

I enjoyed this detour from my normal reading, more detailed than young adult and less angsty. Agnieszka is a bit of an old soul, certainly mature for her age, and even more so by book's end. I don't really mind angsty teenage stories all that much (I do read a lot of them), but this one just has an edge to it that keeps it out of that category. Maybe it's the grown-up romance (which actually wasn't my favorite part of the book; more on that in a bit). Maybe it's that the world is not so narrowly focused on the heroine, not all about meeting her needs. Maybe the thought processes are more mature or the story is darker. (Though, have you read young adult lately? I'm doubting the latter.) In any case, it was interesting to read this kind of story without some of the young adult conventions I'm used to seeing.

Speaking of conventions, a big staple of YA fiction is romance. Uprooted does have an element of romance, but it is underplayed and untraditional. And maybe that's why I didn't like it. I think underplaying the romance is an interesting way to go, but making it untraditional, as well, may upset reader expectations too much. (SPOILERS follow!) Agnieszka falls in love with the Dragon, no surprise there. But it's far from a healthy relationship. He's rude and crotchety-mean and much, much older (though YA, too, messes around with age differences--Twilight, for instance). It might help if his mind retained youthfulness, but no, he's pretty much an old fogey who's conceited and vain about his looks. While you could say he warms up to Agnieszka, he never really gets nicer. There's something good to be said for loving someone despite their flaws, of course, but in this case, the relationship borders on abusive. And a bit unbelievable...this naive, innocent girl willingly pushes past all his defenses, literal and figurative, to sleep with him? Granted, the lead-up to it is rather realistic: a certain situation causes them to become more emotionally intimate, and that bridges the gap to the physical side of things. The book has one and a half sex scenes, which I am both impressed by and annoyed with: impressed by the restraint, annoyed because I'd rather not see any sex at all.

After going that far physically, a YA book would be all about the relationship for the rest of the story. Again, this one differs in that you'd almost think they had a one-night stand and went their separate ways. In fact, I believed that nearly to the end of the book. Then, strangely, when romance had been a subplot the whole time, it got the last say. I would have liked more romance (with a better emotional response from the characters) or none at all. What there was just didn't work for me, though it was not bad to try for that kind of originality.

Where the book's romance doesn't phase some, its darkness might--its dealings with magic and witches and evil. In the realm of fantasy, those things don't bother me so much. I make a distinction between witches in fantasy (where the word implies some sort of magic-wielder, neither good nor bad by default) and Halloween or Disney witches (meant to be scary and mean and evil by default). I don't like the latter at all, but this book falls more into the first category, where the witches actually fight evil.

The darkness of this book has more to do with evil creatures and beings who poison and corrupt the good, which is an apt illustration of how good and evil correlate in the real world. In a Christian worldview, we are born sinful. It's innate. Left to our own devices, lazy about our eternal well-being, evil thrives. Thinking more scientifically, the world tends toward entropy. Either way, left alone, the world is bad. Things fall into disorder. It takes work to make things good, to make things beautiful. Disney says that Belle tames the Beast; it's a lie. In real life, pardon me saying so, the Beast would eat her heart out. All this to say that the Wood in Uprooted acts like evil really acts. It's aggressive. If you aren't keeping it out, be sure it is trying to--and it will--get in. I appreciated the truthfulness of this story's take on evil. But be warned, it's dark and heavy stuff. People in the story are corrupted or die or both. It's not for impressionable minds.

Despite the romance and the darkness, I enjoyed the style of storytelling, the magic of the world, and the way the story broadened in scope as it went on, adding layers and depth, taking the reader to surprising places by its end. I enjoyed the friendship between Agnieszka and her best friend Kasia (she's awesome!), which has more substance than the romance. I give the book four out of five stars.

Uprooted is available mid-May.

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