Magical Ability

From the archives (October 27, 2016):

Review of Uprooted by Naomi Novik (USA: Del Rey Books, 2015)
by Ovidia Yu

Uprooted is a standalone fantasy novel with a refreshingly unique magic system backed up by credible internal logic. It has an elaborate, vaguely Eastern European fairy tale setting, with feudal lords riding in on grand horses, humble villagers and their precious livestock, and peasant children hunting berries. And of course the evil Wood, the source of corruption and danger.

I fell in love with this world at the start of this book. Never mind Naomi Novik’s credentials as author of the beloved alternative-history/fantasy series Temeraire, or of the Nebula Award-winning status of Uprooted. It was the Agnieszka (pronounced “ag-NYESH-kah,” ) character and narrator who got me. Her voice is confident, confiding and disarming. And seen through her eyes, the story drew me in. That and sentences like this, “My family weren’t either poor or rich; we had seven books in our house.” Any reality that uses books as an indication of wealth gets a second look from me! And the scenes where Agnieszka describes herself finding her feet in the tower and in court will strike chords with anyone ill at ease in school or society—even without the threats and intrigue.

Agnieszka lives in the village of Dvernik. A wizard (Sarkan) known as the Dragon is the most powerful sorcerer in the realm. The Dragon is their only protection against the evil Wood. As such, all the peasants in the area owes him fealty, which he claims in the form of one of their daughters. Every ten years the Dragon chooses a seventeen-year-old girl from among them. The girl is taken away to his tower to serve him, though it is unclear to the villagers what she must do. He always chooses a girl who is special in some way—the most beautiful or talented. The Dragon has been doing this for as long as anyone can remember. The girls are released after their service but never return to their families.

Everyone (except the reader) knows that this year the Dragon will choose Kasia, Agnieszka’s best friend. Kasia is everything Agnieszka is not: beautiful, graceful and skilled in the domestic arts. Kasia’s family have been preparing her and themselves for this moment for years. Kasia is the opposite of Agnieszka, who is clumsy, messy and always filthy from scavenging for food in the safe part of the woods.

But the Dragon, with obvious reluctance, chooses Agnieszka instead. We learn that the law of the kingdom decrees that anyone with magical ability must be trained in magic. Agnieszka, though unaware of it till now, is the only one of the girls with innate magic. Later, she realises this explains why she was the only one who could find berries and mushrooms out of season. As the Dragon is the only wizard in this part of the realm who can teach her, she becomes his responsibility.

Agnieszka’s training sessions commence when she is a servant / prisoner in the Dragon’s tower. But this apprenticeship is interrupted by political trouble (war looms between Polnya and the neighbouring kingdom Rosya), magical problems (an increase in attacks from the corrupted Wood), court intrigue, and royal infighting. There is also an ignoble Prince (Prince Marek of Polnya) who tries to rape Agnieszka when he comes to persuade the Dragon to make an expedition into the Wood to rescue the long-missing Queen, his mother.

And worst of all, after the Dragon takes Agnieszka, the Wood takes Kasia. Kasia, who was Agnieszka’s best friend. Kasia, who was intended for the Dragon. Agnieszka’s friendship with Kasia is one of the strengths of the book. This evolves under the malicious influence of the Wood and reveals undercurrents previously ignored in their relationship.

The evolving master and apprentice relationship between the Dragon and Agnieszka also begins wonderfully. They have very different experiences of magic and therefore, very different approaches. I enjoyed how the book illustrates the difference between magic by intuition and systematically studied and applied magic. It brought to mind different approaches to music. Agnieszka is like the child born with perfect pitch and an ability to track melodies, forced to study under a classical teacher who wants her to finger scales correctly before she is allowed to sing; the Mozart vs Salieri contrast. Agnieszka wants to understand how to explore the magic already in her, but the Dragon wants her to master the basics, like healing spells… and try as she may, she can’t.

I also liked the echo of the relationship between William Laurence and Temeraire, his dragon (from Novik’s fighting Napoleon with flying dragons Temeraire series—definitely worth a look at too!) Except here, Sarkan the Dragon is the systematic disciplinarian, which makes the innocent, impulsive Agnieszka the young ‘dragon’. Though untrained, Agnieszka has powers that impress her mentor. When they discover how to work in tandem, the Dragon’s structured magic provides the base from which Agnieszka weaves new magic. Again this is like the music of ragas, where new melodies are improvised from the same base notes. And the resulting magic is stronger than either of them could create individually.

I was a little disappointed by the last quarter of the book. The way it sets out to explain what has gone before feels almost as though the writer is systematically tying up all the loose threads. Perhaps demystification always leads to disappointment. I wouldn’t have minded some mystery remaining, perhaps with the possibility of a sequel. And I would have liked to have been treated to more of Agnieszka’s development as a character and the evolution of her relationship with the Dragon. It felt as though once the action started, all character development froze. Yes, we do find out more about the characters, the reasons behind the Dragon’s cold, contemptuous front, for instance. But the discovery explains his past behaviour without leading to further change.

This is how most fairy tale characters are. It is only disappointing here because the richness in the beginning of this book promised much more. It is still good reading. There are complex battle scenes, pragmatic peasants, wolves and worse creatures, political plots and social intrigues. The magical system is convincing and even the origin of its evil explained at the end. Beneath the superficial casting of spells, the characters live out the inexplicable magic of love, loyalty, and friendship, and work out ways of surviving betrayal and torture.

And best of all is the evil Wood. The Wood is a wonderful and worthy antagonist. It is sentient and it is malicious, truly the stuff of nightmares. It changes and corrupts the people and animals it captures. And it is constantly expanding, encroaching on the helpless villages and infecting more and more of the population.

A final glimpse of the Wood:

The trunk of it was broader than the side of a horse, towering up into an immensity of spreading branches. Its boughs were laden with pale silver-green leaves and small golden fruits with a horrible stink, and beneath the bark, looking at us was a human face, overgrown and smoothed out into a mere suggestion, with two hands crossed across the breast like a corpse. Two great roots forked at its feet, and in the hollow between them lay a skeleton, almost swallowed by moss and rotting leaves. A smaller root twisted out through one open eye socket, and grass poked through ribs and scraps of rusted mail. The remains of a shield lay across the body, barely marked with a black double-headed eagle: the royal crest of Rosya.


Award-winning Singaporean writer Ovidia Yu has written over thirty plays, children’s books and short stories. Her comic mystery novels, Miss Moorthy Investigates, Aunty Lee’s Delights, Aunty Lee’s Deadly Specials and Aunty Lee’s Chilled Revenge will be followed in 2017 with The Frangipani Tree Mystery and Meddling and Murder: An Aunty Lee Mystery.