Mar 4, 2017

Otherland Speculative Fiction Book Club

Into the Woods


by Walter Phippeny

Sitting under candle light at the Eselsbrücke’s bar in Prenzlauer Berg, I cracked open Uprooted by Naomi Novik for the first time. From the blurb on the back of the paperback, I knew that I was about to enter a fantasy world and follow the adventures of a young girl, Agnieszka: a world with dark woods and mysterious wizards. And that was about it. After the first few pages, I was deeply hooked and finished the book within a few days. I couldn’t put it down.

In this genre mashup, Novik successfully blends a combination of fairy tale, epic fantasy, and even touches of dark fantasy to weave a gripping narrative. Our charming main character, Agnieszka, is a young girl, coming of age and on a road of self-discovery. In a ritual that takes place every ten years, she is selected to be the serving girl of the Dragon – an enigmatic wizard who lives alone on the edge of the village in an ancient manse – and is forced to leave behind everything she has known. Very quickly, she discovers that she has abilities she never expected. Hearing that, your cliché radar might have immediately gone off. It’s true that there’s nothing new in the bullet points of this story, but it’s what Novik does with this familiar material that makes this book work.  

It’s very hard to mashup genres successfully: too many jarring or discordant tones can pull the reader out of the narrative and break the flow. But Novik manages to succeed at this juggling act. Her lushes and vibrant imagery gives us a fairy tale setting, but then we have dark and violent turns where fairy tale and dark fantasy overlap. Novik then brings in epic fantasy elements with court politics, warring states, and schools of wizardry, but she doesn’t venture too far outside of the Venn diagram where fairy tale and epic fantasy intersect. Her world building is well done, but never pulls focus from the characters and their journey. If Tolkien is obsessed with his setting and its details, Novik is far more interested in the players. We get just enough world building to draw us in, but not too much; this is hard to do right. Novik handles the tone of her novel like a master composer: never throwing us key changes that our ears aren’t ready for.

The book is very film-like in its story telling, and it would be easy to adapt Uprooted into a screen play: the pages are dripping with visuals, the characters have obvious arcs, and there are plenty of setups and pay-offs that make movies so enjoyable. I even noticed that it passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors: there are plenty of scenes where two named female characters talk about something other than a man. I really wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Uprooted gets optioned. Hold on a second while I google that... And, what do you know? It HAS been optioned. As Novik states on her website, posted on June 18th of 2015:

“I am so pleased and excited to be able to confirm that yes, Warner Brothers – home of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies, among many other wonderful fantasy films — have optioned the rights to turn Uprooted into what we all hope will be another series of wonderful fantasy films.”

Whoever ends up writing that adaptation is going to have a sinecure, laughing all the way to the bank.

Uprooted is by no means a perfect book. The main villain has problematic aspects and conflicting attributes that venture into the realm of plot convenience. And there are sections that can venture dangerously into the land of schmaltz with a cloying after taste of treacle. But I was willing to forgive these imperfections. At the Otherland’s Book Club meeting, one of the participants commented, “it’s a book for 14 year old girls”, to which I replied, “Yes! And the 14 year old girl inside of me loved it!”

Uprooted isn’t an endless feast that becomes deeper with each re-reading; but it IS a fun romp in a unique setting with interesting characters and a very likable and developed narrator who you want to root for. Novik takes old tropes and twists them into new, yet recognizable shapes. I enjoyed following Agnieszka through her challenges, failures, and victories; I was emotionally invested. The emotional investment made Uprooted worth the price of admission for me, and the 14 year old girl inside of you will love it too.


  1. I was really surprised how much I loved this novel after the first third ... to be honest, I was expecting something a little bit more like a post-modern fairy-tale, meaning smaller in scale, focussed on the motive of the girl imprisoned in the wizard's tower; something along the lines of a feminist re-reading of Sleeping Beauty and/or Rapunzel. I was a little disappointed when it became clear that this was actually yet again a story about a young protagonist with a special, extraordinary gift that allows her to solve all problems breezily.
    But ...
    All that changed when Agniezka went to the capital. I expected all the wizards there to be totally wowed by her magical gifts, but actually, they were not that impressed and had other things on their minds. That was one twist I really liked about the book - because often, these coming of age stories rely heavily on the protagonist getting recognition from people in authority at some point - and that's usually the point where all pretentions of youthful rebelliousness go down the drain. Suddenly, it's all about being praised by your teacher.
    That doesn't happen in Uprooted - once Agniezka arrives at the capital, it becomes clear that not everything is about her gift and her self-esteem; a lot of other stuff is going on.

    Then, I also was truly impressed with how the bodycount in the two big battles of the books was handled. Without resorting to gore, Novik really drove home the point of how absurd it is to sacrifice dozens, hundreds or even thousands of nameless soldiers for some cause, whatever it may be. She also manages to not make it all about Agniezka's self-righthous heart-bleed; Agniezka is part of the slaughter, has incited it in a way, and the novel doesn't shy away from that fact.

    Finally, I also really liked Novik's take on the noble warrior hero Marek, who is actually an enormous jerk, but still a noble warrior.

    To be honest, the one character in the book that really felt kind of pointless to me was Agniezka's best friend (what was her name again); she really was too good to be true, and I never really felt that she was contributing something interesting. Can't quite say why ...

    All in all, a really good stand-alone fantasy novel with some more depth than I had expected after reading the first 100 pages or so.

  2. In the context of this book, Agnieszka DOES have special abilities, but I felt that Novik did a good job of building an arc with her. Though she succees in everything she does, it still felt like there were stakes and that she was struggling. As you mentioned in your Otherland Videoblog, she's modest and shy; we get to see her fear and uncertainty, and that makes her a very sympathetic character. I thought that Novik struck a good balance, and Agnieszka avoided entering into Mary Sue territory. This came up in the OBC: "was Agniezka a Mary Sue?" Unlike Rey from "The Force Awakens", Agneiszka goes through a learning process, and we, as readers, are rooting for her.

    I agree that her friend, Kasia, wasn't handled as well. After Kasia goes through her ordeal with the Wood, she becomes a sort of superhero. I was immediately reminded of the TV Trope, "Cursed with Awesome". Shouldn't this character be a little more broken after being magic raped?

    I thought the gore in the book created an interesting mix of fairy tale and dark fantasy. The corruption of the Wood was total dark fantasy. It did a good job of creating stakes too.

    I agree with Marc that the main villian became a little plot convenient at the end, but I was willing to forgive "Uprooted" its short comings.