Naomi Novik’s fantasy novel “Uprooted” features Agnieszka, a young woman whose special skills give her an edge against evil spells.
by Naomi Novik
Del Rey, 448 pp., $24
This first book in Naomi Novik’s new fantasy series starts in a pleasant clearing in the shadows of an evil ancient forest, as the local wizard picks the wrong maiden for tribute. Like her fellow villagers, awkward tomboy Agnieszka expects beautiful Kasia to be the one chosen to serve the wizard in his forbidding tower. Agnieszka views herself as a natural sidekick, but her unlooked-for skill with balls of spectral blue-white flame wins her the wizard’s notice — and with it, the role of “Uprooted’s” heroine.
From this promising beginning, best-selling author Novik takes us on a surprise-filled journey over comfortingly familiar territory. There are spells and royalty, monsters and woodcutters, corruption, betrayal, courage, and some pretty hot romance along the way. But events never play out exactly as anticipated by the book’s characters; nothing is quite what it seems. This makes Agnieszka’s discovery of the double-edged power of truth all the more effective. She uses it as a magical weapon against spells that entangle her beautiful friend and coincidentally endanger the kingdom, challenging received wisdom whenever necessary.
Novik is known for her acclaimed Temeraire series, set in an alternate Horatio Hornblower universe where dragons form an anti-Napoleonic air force. The only occurrence of a dragon in “Uprooted,” however, is as the name of the aforementioned wizard, as human in his form as Agnieszka and Kasia. Novik’s switch from Regency-era Britain and Australia to a medieval Polish-esque setting reflects her ancestry — she was raised on the stories of the witch Baba Yaga and Polish fairy tales. The resulting warmth and intimacy provide a nicely nurturing environment for her heroine’s unusual adventures.