Monday, June 15, 2015

Dragon and (Very) Dark Woods

Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik


I know Naomi Novik from the Temeraire dragon novels, so I had no hesitation in diving into Uprooted. No British Imperial Navy dragon flights here; this is more of a swords-and-sorcery story. Novik is totally up-front; the novel opens with it:

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...

The Dragon of this tale makes his ten-year selection and carries her off to his tower to serve him for a decade. The girls he takes might as well be eaten, however, they may be released from the tower in ten years, but they don't return home. They go off to live in the city instead, dowered by the Dragon into marriage or business as they choose. 

Agnieszka isn't like the girls he usually selects, though. She had been the village gleaner, expert at foraging through the forest (never the Woods!) for whatever she could find that might be edible or useful. She's used to always having her hair straggling, her face smutched and her clothing torn ragged by twigs. 

Not expecting to be chosen, she has never really thought about how she should react to a wizard master. She's fearful and cocky by turns, and totally unprepared for the almost-OCD reaction of the Dragon to her stubborn untidiness. 

The Dragon is different, worse, than she had feared. He is aloof and commanding, of course, that was expected. Agnieszka hadn't dreamed of the horrible lessons he drags her through each day. 

Her new home is unexpected, as well. For a start, there's the magical painting on her wall, a simplistic map of the Valley overseen by the Dragon, with a really-flowing river running through it, and stars to mark the villages between the mountains and the Woods. There are the immense front doors that Agnieszka cannot open, and the walls and piles of books in the Dragon's library.

She can only console herself that hundreds of other ten-year girls had survived their decade serving the Dragon, and so she can as well.

Novik dives unerringly to the heart of the tale, introducing magicians as adept as any in the Harry Potter tales, fighters for right as brave as Hobbits, and an enemy as dark and old as the iron mortar that Baba Yaga rides. There is a Grimm quality to this novel that comes straight from a racial memory of Woods that hold dark mysteries and certain death. 

Excellent and unexpected, just like Agnieszka and the Dragon!