Naomi Novik’s Temeraire is one of my all-time favorite dragon characters. Yes, the series looked like a massively cynical attempt to mix Jane Austen with Hornblower and Pern, but it was so well done that I loved it anyway. As time went on, however, the series began to dull, and even I lost interest. It seemed as if the publishers were determined to dig the very last and smallest nugget out of the mine before giving up on it, and in a hugely competitive market who can blame them? What that was doing for Novik’s career was another matter. At some point she had to stop and do something different. Now she has done so, and thankfully it is brilliant.
While Temeraire was very much derivative of classic genre fiction, the new book, Uprooted, is something very different. If it is derivative of anything, it is of the Polish and Russian folktales that Novik has inherited from her ancestors. It also shows Novik taking command of fantasy as a writing style, and proving that she is fit to do so.
In a small valley in Polnya, near the border with Rosya, there is a tower. In the tower lives a wizard known only as The Dragon, for he is very fierce and much feared. Every 10 years he demands tribute from the villages of the valley in the form of a teenage girl whom he takes off to his tower where he doubtless does unspeakable things to her. The girl is never seen again. The villagers put up with this, partly because the wizard is very powerful, partly because the King commands it, and partly because they are reliant on the wizard for protection from The Wood.
Ah yes, The Wood, a terrible, dark place full of monsters, plague and corruption. Slowly but surely it has been expanding into the valley. Only magic can hold it back. It has even had the temerity to capture Queen Hanna. Prince Marek, being a younger son with nothing much to do with his life than adventuring, has vowed to rescue her, but how this might be done, and even if the Queen is still alive, is a mystery.
In the little village of Dvernik live two teenage girls. Kasia is so beautiful and capable that everyone knows she will be taken by The Dragon this year. It has been her fate since she was born. Agnieszka (Nieshka) is everything that Kasia is not: plain, irresponsible and accident prone. She’s so forgetful that she even manages to get lost in The Wood occasionally, though she always seems to find her way out, often with arms full of delicious mushrooms or out-of-season fruit. Really, the villagers should have known. The Dragon understood immediately and took her off to his tower where she could be trained.
The rest of the novel follows the adventures of Nieshka, Kasia, the wizard (who turns out to be called Sarkan) and Marek as our heroine grows into her powers, and the fight against The Wood reaches epic proportions. The plot moves effortlessly from a tale of a naïve young girl given into the possession of a creepy old wizard, through monster-battling adventures and court intrigue to full-on war. It is all rather splendid. I’m not surprised that the book cover carries ringing endorsements everyone from Ursula Le Guin and Robin Hobb to Patrick Rothfuss and Lev Grossman.
The things I liked most about the Temeraire series were Novik’s lovable characters and her unerring ability to make me cry. Few writers seem to have such a direct conduit to my emotions. Uprooted has all of that, but it is smart, aware enough of the world to earn Le Guin’s praise, and the best evocation of the dangers of the wild wood since Rob Holdstock. The magic that Sarkan and Nieshka do is really well handled as well.
Also there is no sign that the book is going to be part of a series. Oddly, that means I am really looking forward to seeing what Novik does next.
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