“Those the walkers carried into the Wood were less lucky. We didn’t know what happened to them, but they came back out sometimes, corrupted in the worst way: smiling and cheerful, unharmed. They seemed almost themselves to anyone who didn’t know them well, and you might spend half a day talking with one of them and never realize anything was wrong, until you found yourself taking up a knife and cutting off your own hand, putting out your own eyes, your own tongue, while they kept talking all the while, smiling, horrible.”
Agnieszka and Kasia have been best friends throughout their childhood in the village of Dvernik, bonded by the fact that they are both Dragon-born girls. Every ten years, the Dragon—the sorcerer who protects the valley from the dark magic of the Wood—takes a seventeen-year-old girl to live with him in the Tower, and both Agnieszka and Kasia will be seventeen the year his next servant is chosen. Everyone knows that it is Kasia, beautiful, and graceful, and competent, who will be chosen. And after ten years, she will emerge from the tower rich and educated, and leave the valley forever. But when the Dragon comes to make his choice, it is not Kasia who attracts his attention.
Uprooted has definite flavours of Beauty and the Beast, where a young woman is taken into the castle of a monster—or in this case a man with a monstrous reputation—and held there alone. The Dragon employs no other servants, and entertains no guests, unless called upon by the Crown, which he is bound to serve. Though it takes her time to admit it to herself, there is a reason Agnieszka attracted the Dragon’s attention despite being less beautiful than Kasia. She is a witch, and magical talent is too valuable in Polnya to be squandered. So expecting a role as servant, Agnieszka instead finds herself apprenticed, and drafted into the war against the Wood.
In most stories, Kasia would have disappeared after Agnieszka was taken, having served her part in the tale. But Uprooted continues to turn on their friendship, even eventually forcing them to confront and move past the hidden resentment that existed between them by virtue of being Dragon-born. While not destined for the life she had expected—riches and education and freedom in exchange for ten years of her youth and unquestioning service—Kasia still has an exceptional path before her, which is entwined with Agnieszka’s.
Uprooted is full of complex characters with individual motivations. Sarkan is determined to hold the Wood at bay, whatever the cost. Prince Marek is determined to somehow save his mother, Queen Hanna, from the Wood, even though she disappeared twenty years ago. Meanwhile his father, the King of Polnya, has his eyes set on a new international alliance that will help protect Polnya against Rosya. The wizards Alosha and Solya are caught up in politics and war due to their lives at court, and the monk-wizard Brother Ballo is consumed by his quest for knowledge. All these warring motivations come to bear on the question of how to fight the Wood, and prevent it from swallowing the valley, or corrupting the kingdom. The Wood is a terrifying arch-villain, but it is the smaller antagonists that add depth to the tale.
I started Uprooted listening to the audiobook, narrated by Julia Emelin, a Russian-born voice actress. It took me a while to settle into the accent she used to perform the book, but within an hour I was absolutely hooked into the tale. I was enjoying the story so much three quarters of the way through, that I decided to go ahead and buy the paperback before I reached the end. Fortunately, it did not disappoint! This is a dark, lushly imagined fantasy that hits all the sweet-spots for a fairy tale retelling. I’m tempted to pick it back up and start again from the beginning.
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The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black
The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman