Uprooted—Naomi Novik

Our Dragon doesn't eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that's not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he's still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we're grateful, but not that grateful. (1)
Uprooted was the main pick for Vaginal Fantasy in the month of August, in the year 2015. It was a forum pick this month, and I have to say, good job us!

Agnieska is one of the girls in the valley, the valley from which the Dragon makes his pick once every ten years. The people of the valley allow the Dragon to take one of their girls, because he in turn protects them from the corrupted Wood. But Nieshka's not worried—everyone knows that the Dragon will take Kasia when he comes. So although she's not worried for herself, Agnieska mourns that she will soon lose her best friend in Kasia. But Agnieksa fears the wrong things, because when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will take.

The pull quote above is  the opening paragraph of the book. Along with it's following paragraph, they are the most intriguing beginning to any book that I've read in a long time. Uprooted is also the closest thing to an old school fairy tale that I've read in a long time, maybe ever; not just with regard to content, but also with regard to writing style, level of prose, and structure. Instead of using an overabundance of dialogue in order to explain things, there were actual descriptions, exposition. It was one of my favourite things about the book. I find that many authors rely on dialogue to tell the story for them, which feels lazy. Of course it's easy for a character to say, "I'm just going to monologue for a while to give you background about myself in a covert way, rather than having any sense of discovery there." Likewise, the setting and choice of language were deliberate and added to the fairy tale feeling.

This is especially true in the last fifty pages or so, when the origin of the Wood is revealed. The lore and mythology that was created was so heartbreaking and touching. As a tree hugger, I empathized with the Wood, and had I been Agnieszka, could see myself reacting similarly following the final battle. It's summed up when the Wood-queen explains, "They cut them down. They will always cut them down. They come and go like seasons, the winter that gives no thought to the spring." (419) Even though this is a fairy tale, it still rings true to the way that we humans treat nature and the world around us in general. Treating our resources as neverending is going to come back to bite us—already is, really—just as it did for the valley folk in this book.

There were some in the forum who felt that Dragon's background wasn't fleshed out enough. I actually didn't have a problem with that. I thought the one story that we got about his past gave us a fair amount of background. Use that, and a little bit of understanding about human nature and reactions, and you can figure him out with not much trouble. After all, we'd all probably be surly and antisocial if we were consigned to a tower in the woods, constantly fighting a losing battle by yourself, with no assistance, and ordered to train young women with magical aptitude. And if you only ever interact with a person who is essentially your captive, you probably aren't going to be super interested in explaining things, or even really remember the subtleties of human interaction. I also think that Sarkan was surprised and frustrated by Agnieszka's powers, because he had worked so hard and so long with his own style and then everything seemed to come so easy for her. Somebody like that would probably be quite frustratingly intoxicating and alluring. I saw it as his way of dealing with these foreign and uncomfortable feelings that he was constantly antagonizing her. Kind of like a second grader who pushes the girl he likes into the dirt. I don't think it's necessary to get a dissertation on the Dragon to understand why he is the way that he is. Agnieszka even says it towards the end: He wasn't wrong, and the Wood-queen wasn't dead anyway; she was only dreaming. But he wasn't going for the sake of corruption or the kingdom. His tower was broken, he'd drunk Spindle-water, and he'd held my hand. So now he was going to run away as quick as he could, and find himself some new stone walls to hide behind. He'd keep himself locked away for ten years this time, until he withered his own roots, and didn't feel the lack of them anymore. (423) Pretty stereotypical man in that way, running away from his feelings.

Like others mentioned in the forum, it did seem as though Agnieszka's powers manifested quickly and powerfully, but I didn't see that as such an outlandish thing. A big part of it seemed to be that she was more free, less restricted when it came to the magic. And there are examples of prodigies such as her even in our own mundane world. I appreciated her sense of agency and independence. When she and Sarkan finally get steamy, she is the one who initiates. She also is the one who takes her own path, and decides to work on healing the Wood after its history is revealed. She cares little for how others may perceive this choice of hers, doing instead what she feels is right and is within her power to do. I admired her for that.

The only things I didn't love were Agnieszka's time at court—which seemed to last about fifty more pages than it needed to—and the very end, when Sarkan comes back. I didn't think that was necessary, and likened it in my mind to the epilogue in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Even with those few small caveats, I LOVED this book. I'm glad that I bought it in hardcover, because I will treasure it, recommend it to others, and read it regularly throughout the years, I'm sure.

Watch the monthly Hangout below to see what the VagFan ladies (and Veronica's Sword and Laser co-host and special guest, Tom Merritt) thought. I have to say, I love the main four ladies, but I am digging the guests, especially the Toms the last two months.

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