By Naomi Novik
Available now from Del Rey (Penguin Random House)
Naomi Novik has created a lovely fantasy rooted in a strong female friendship. UPROOTED feels both traditional and fresh, with roots in folklore but a strong perspective of its own. Agnieszka is a teenage girl in a village where one girl is taken by the Dragon once every ten years. The girls are released, but always go on to leave the village. To her surprise, Agnieszka is chosen instead of her lovely best friend Kasia. (By the way, Agnieszka is the Polish version of Agnes, if you're confused about how to say it.)
Agnieszka's early days with the Dragon are miserable: he is rude and belittling. But she soon discovers that she was picked because she has magic, and the Dragon must train her. Unfortunately, Agnieszka is a lackadaisical student. The Dragon is fastidious and fussy, and clashes strongly with Agnieszka's casual-to-slovenly manner. Yet when Agnieszka's village and Kasia turn out to be in grave danger, she suddenly has a reason to pay attention to her magic and develop her gift.
UPROOTED is wonderfully creepy. The antagonist is the Wood, a strange place that has been there as long as anyone can remember. It is trying to overtake human settlements; being corrupted by the Wood is a horrible fate. It requires constant vigilance by the strongest magicians to keep the Wood at bay. It is a canny force indeed. The horror of the wood contrasts with the warmth of Agnieszka's personality.
Magicians are long lived, and few of the ones living have many ties to other people left. Agnieszka still cares, still has the optimism that she can save people and make a lasting difference. She especially has her tie to Kasia, the childhood friend she loved and envied so long. I love how complicated their relationship is. Novik doesn't make it all sweet. She develops the ways the girls resent each other, the secret frictions that happen between even the best of friends.
I don't have much to say about the romance between Agnieszka and the Dragon, which seems a rather obligatory hook up between the hero and heroine. (It left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth, how awful he was to her in the beginning. I was also disappointed he wasn't actually a dragon.) I will say that I love how much relationships between women propel the plot. UPROOTED is a great novel for female heroes and villains.
If you enjoy fantasy novels with a fairytale feel and a genuinely scary adversary, then read UPROOTED. It is a novel sure to delight fans of Robin McKinley and Patricia C. Wrede. While an adult novel, it has a lot of young adult appeal too.