You could be forgiven for thinking that the character called “the Dragon” in Naomi Novik’s engrossing fantasy novel Uprooted will be, well, a dragon. Novik is after all the author of the hugely entertaining Temeraire series of novels set in an alternate-history version of the Napoleonic Wars where the English and the French militaries battle each other atop flying, talking dragons that make up a significant percentage of the cast of characters. But Uprooted’s “Dragon” is in fact a professional title for a foul-tempered human wizard named Sarkan, whose fire-breathing mostly comes in metaphorical form. And unlike the youthful, inquisitive Temeraire, Sarkan is an old “dragon” who only learns new tricks with grudging reluctance.
The supernaturally long-lived Sarkan commands a tower in the valley region of the kingdom of Polnya, which seems to exist in a fantastical world out of Polish and Russian folklore. There he protects several villages from the Wood, a gradually encroaching forest full of mythical monsters and people who have been abducted and frighteningly transformed. The Dragon periodically selects a 17-year-old girl from one of the villages and takes her to live with him in his tower as an apparent payment for his protection. No one knows what happens to them there, but when they emerge after 10 years they never choose to move back home.
As Uprooted opens, the time for that selection has come again. Of course the Dragon’s not going to pick our narrator, Agnieszka, who’s always filthy because she spends all day long exploring the outdoors and getting covered in brambles and mud. Of course he’s going to pick her best friend, Kasia, who’s beautiful and popular and fun and a good cook.
Except of course he is going to pick Agnieszka, because that’s a big part of what stories like this offer. The unlikely choice is the character in whom you, the reader, see yourself. Even the Kasias reading Uprooted feel like Agnieszkas in their hearts, and they want to imagine that they—rather than their annoyingly together friend who seems to have it all figured out—will be the one called upon to be extraordinary. That’s the fantasy fulfillment that makes novels like Uprooted so much fun, and Novik is a master at delivering it.
That’s not meant as faint praise, either: Writing fantasy isn’t easy whichever definition of the term you’re using. And Novik easily delivers several modes of wish-fulfillment through narrative here: One chapter after Agnieszka is granted the full Harry Potter/Katniss Everdeen experience, leaving her mundane life behind for the extraordinary, she’s immediately delivered into a Belle/Jane Eyre situation as she’s forced to share a nearly inescapable tower with the remote but broodily alluring Dragon. Despite finding evidence that the Dragon treated her predecessors as benignly neglected servants, Agnieszka quickly discovers that Sarkan’s interest in her is different: She has the gift of magic, making it his duty to train her as a wizard.
The training sessions are a real highlight of Uprooted, as Sarkan and Agnieszka’s relationship moves from a Yoda-and-Skywalker model to a Mad Max–and–Imperator Furiosa one. Novik’s unexpected wrinkle here is that while Agnieszka’s gift for magic is strong, Sarkan’s value as her instructor is limited because their approaches to spell-casting are so different. They quickly discover that they wield magic most effectively in a kind of intimate tandem, which isn’t an easy fit for a longtime recluse like Sarkan. He’s like a fussy music theory professor forced to cut an album with an improvising jazz musician, but the resulting music is better than either could make separately.
I wished, as our heroes kept getting called out of the tower to deal with crises, that these training sessions had gotten more time to breathe, to let the novel’s central relationship fully cook through. But the Wood is on the rise, while Polnya is on the brink of war with the neighboring nation Rosya. Before long, Agnieszka is separated from Sarkan and packed off to the capital city for an extended section of court intrigue and royal infighting. While this world-building is welcome, like the training sequence it is jarringly abbreviated to make way for our heroes’ final confrontation with the Wood.
To be fair, all of this is great fun. The pages turn and the Kindle screens swipe with alacrity. An early expedition into the Wood to rescue a long-missing Queen is particularly white-knuckle. Temeraire fans will be pleased to know that a superb tower-under-siege sequence demonstrates that Novik has lost none of her facility for making complex battle scenes clear and exciting. And Agnieszka remains a scrappy, appealing hero throughout. It’s just that one can’t help but be reminded that Novik’s Temeraire series will conclude next year as a nine-novel cycle and wonder why a writer so skilled at pacing a long, complicated chronicle over multiple books has crammed this story into one.
It’s as if Novik is overcorrecting for the kind of Hollywood bloat that causes studios to split fantasy-novel adaptations into multiple films. Here, she packs an entire trilogy into a single book. Agnieszka’s corridors-of-power adventures in Polnya’s capital have kind of a middle-volume vibe to them, while some fascinating late-breaking revelations about the nature of the Wood definitely feel like they deserve their own dedicated installment. I felt this most particularly in Agnieszka’s evolution as a character. While it’s thrilling in the book’s final third to read about her taking control of her own magical identity as a latter-day Baba Yaga, it does feel as though it’s happened without giving her the opportunity to explore a few blind-alley identities on the way there.
If you’re a reader who enjoys smart coming-of-age fantasy adventures, you’ll have a blast with Uprooted. But you may find that you harbor your own fantasy—that Novik had uprooted this story from its overflowing single volume and let it spread its wings.
Uprooted by Naomi Novik. Del Rey.