I'm familiar with Naomi Novik's name and writing due to her "master and commander with dragons fanfic"/Napoleonic-Wars-With-Dragons series and while I am a bit nervous that she took time off from it to write a completely different novel (as I would for any author) I do understand since that series is slated to be about nine novels and she's written at least six of them. So, it's not surprising that she chose to write about something other than dragons but this story is even more fantastical with it's creatures which I found interesting from a meta standpoint ("okay is she more interested in writing historical fiction or fantasy? Well this gives me at least part of the answer!"). Weirdly enough Amazon includes "Temeraire" in the title but I have no earthly idea how these stories could be connected, if magic is added into the Napoleonic Wars I think everyone is doomed, so I can only assume this was done to try and entice more readers and will reassure others that you can make this your first Naomi Novik book and enjoy it just fine.
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Agnieszka lives in a dangerous place, a small farming village in a valley surrounded by a malevolent woods and overseen by a wizard named Dragon. And every ten years the Dragon takes a young girl from the village to stay with him for ten years and, almost as horrifyingly, after those years she leaves her home and goes off to live in the rest of world. Not due to pregnancy or any special reason, she simply leaves and going with the Dragon means that this girl is now fated to leave her world behind forever.
Agnieszka isn't as worried about the upcoming fall festival and she should be, everyone has always known that it will be her friend Kaisa who is chosen by the Dragon. Kaisa is skilled in everything, pretty, and smart, there's no reason not to choose her, until the Dragon comes and realizes that Agnieszka has magic. Now she is the one plucked out of small place in a turbulent world and put in a tower where she can see the woods creeping closer everyday and how no one can seem to stop this cunning creature.
The impression I got from reading other reviews, was that this was a take on the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale and while that is technically correct, it's only a small part of the story and I'd like to highlight how this feels much more like a fairy tale. "But wait, that is a fairy tale right?" Yep! But it's one of the most adapted fairy tales currently so in some ways I find that hard to remember. Everyone
Which perfectly describes the forest in Uprooted. It is very metaphorical in some ways but it is also a living, cunning creature that is literally executing pinscher attacks on villages to try and corrupt as many of them as possible. If this story was told in a visual form I would be calling it part horror for sure since Novik does such a good job conveying the terror and tension that comes from living so close to it. And this is no little monster which is unknown outside of Agnieszka's home area, it's so unpredictable and dangerous that it practically prevents the kingdom and it's neighbors from waging as many wars since they are devoting that many resources to this internal fight! That feels more like a fairy tale to me, especially since of course, Agnieszka ends up working with the wizard who is trying to stop the spread and every hero worth their salt takes on the monsters besieging their home.
It's a very lonely fight however because this forest does have metaphorical elements and the one I noticed the most was the isolation it causes. The rest of the country does know about it but they still leave these villages alone, outsiders are too scared of what will happen and the peasants spend all their time both living regular lives and fighting whatever new menace has popped up in their fields overnight that they have no time to go out into the rest of the world so the forest has effectively already cut them off*. This isolation crops up in many other places in the story as well, in expected places like the wizard Dragons's tower to how city folk in the capital isolate themselves from the rest of the kingdom with their parties and conversations, to how the wizards as a whole feel very separate from non-magical people due to their lifespans and so, like these other groups, have not been pushed out of other social circles but have retreated inwards. Not all of this is due to the forest but the wizards spend much of their time thinking of ideas and weapons to use against it and the city folk try to ignore the growth coming to their door, the forest is an all-encircling presence.
So of course our "hero" Agnieszka is the perfect person to be at the center of this story since she is isolated in all of these ways but keeps moving through the kingdom to other people to try and get help. She was never meant to be in this position, she should've remained rooted to her family farm while Kasia served Dragon for ten, lonely years, but through a cosmological quirk she is magical and therefore she must move in ways she never expected. I also liked how Kasia played a bigger role in the story in the end, like Agnieszka she ends up being not-quite-human early on and the perhaps-not-friendship but silent, unwavering support the two girls gave each other was wonderful and strong. The characters are the strongest part of a strong story, although I did feel like the story misstepped a little bit with Dragon's actions towards the end and I was rather hoping we could make it through the story without any romance since it has no effect on the plot at all. I also felt like the story was a little muddled in the middle as it tried to get Agnieszka back from the palace to the countryside (the story seemed a bit unsure of how to accomplish this) and parts of the ending wrapped up both more slowly than I expected and too quickly.
Overall it's a great tale, it's fantasy without an overly complicated backstory (well, until that ending, again it gets a bit muddled), challenges that seem appropriately impossible, and interesting characters. I'm honestly not quite sure if this is adult fiction or not but I think it is so I would additionally describe it as "for adults but with many YA fantasy aspects". That is a compliment, I feel like YA smooths out a lot of fantasy ideas to keep things simpler and moving when compared to adult fiction (I may do a post sometime on the differences between the two) and so this really should appeal to anyone who reads more YA than adult fiction (like Diana Wynne Jone's works) and those who prefer adult fiction (it's completely different from City of Blades but has the same kind of "smoothness" to how it approaches world building and integrating setting into the plot). The Amazon review page actually has a lot of terrific little blurbs on the book so please, if you're still on the fence about this, go read all of those nice things and then go pick up the book itself!
*there is a second, more literal reason for this which I liked but wonder if some people disliked because of how "plot element" it was in some ways.