We live in an age of fairytales. We live in perhaps the age for fairytales. They’re on television, in the movies, in songs, in cartoons, in advertising. Fairytales have become the subtext of our culture, the perplexing and resonant paradigms we think with. Yet, for all their omnipresence, we don’t really understand them: where do they come from? Why do we cherish them so much? And, even more fundamentally: what, truly, is a fairytale? This is a question Naomi Novik reimagines in her new novel, Uprooted.
Uprooted is the tale of a teenager, Agnieszka, caught in a whirl of adventure and desire. She lives in a valley menaced by an ancient glowering forest that traps people and makes them grotesque mockeries of their earlier selves. On the far side of the valley is a forbidding tower inhabited by a remote wizard called the Dragon, whose task it is to hold the wood at bay and prevent it from encroaching further upon the valley. Every ten years, he takes a girl from the valley, for his own mysterious reasons, and transforms them just as surely (if less cruelly) as the wood does. They return, a decade later, only to flee the valley and their families yet again.
The story begins in one such year of choosing. Everyone but the reader expects the Dragon to take beautiful, accomplished Kasia, rather than her best friend, the unkempt Agnieszka. The Dragon, even less pleased about this unexpected turn of events than Agnieszka herself, is soon forced to explain why: unlike Kasia, she has magical ability, and he’s legally bound to train her. In this he fails utterly, as Agnieszka appears unable to sustain the simplest magic. For weeks, all she can do is drag herself out of his library, weary and furious. Then, one day, they discover why: he is trying to train her in structural high magic, meticulous and precise, while her talent lies in intuitive and fluid hedge-magic. And so begins their relationship, completely ill-suited and yet beautifully symbiotic. They realize that they can, working together, accomplish wonders neither can achieve alone, and some of the best writing in Uprooted involves descriptions of their shared workings. This melding between two apparently opposed paradigms is, moreover, also an excellent metaphor for Naomi Novik’s achievement in Uprooted, a novel built with fairytale logic.
There are many origin myths about fairytales. One is that they spring from the human condition and address dilemmas that cut across cultures: abandonment, survival, desire. Another is that they circulate between cultures, which is why stories from the Arabian Nights or the Panchatantra find their way into the western canon and why Disney movies are so beloved on the subcontinent. Both accounts attempt to account for the similarities between stories told across amazing distances, and they are the impulse behind most modern compilations, such as Angela Carter’s Book of Fairytales. Fairytales are universal, this belief goes, they are as potent in Iran as in India. This is not an impulse that the Brothers Grimm, for instance, shared. To them, fairytales were primal, but not universal. They were rooted, specific, home-grown. To appreciate them you had to appreciate the countryside that supported them, and while stories, like all life, evolved, they did so organically, like the quiet growth of plants. Fairytales do spread, but not through trade. They reproduce.
Novik plants herself firmly in the Grimm school. Her story is only possible within a certain valley beside a certain forest. The valley and the forest have a sordid history of conflict, which has slowly grown to engulf the entire kingdom, and Uprooted is about how that conflict is finally resolved. A lot of things happen in between, of course, and one possible critique of the book is too many things happen, that the sheer quantity of plot threatens to overwhelm everything else. But that’s how fairytales work: they’re all story, event after implausible event, raging along, linked only by the quality of readerly interest. The test of how well they’re told, then, is how well they sustain that interest, and by that standard, Uprooted succeeds remarkably until the last few chapters (on which more later). But it’s not, in itself, a fairytale—though to explain why I probably should explain what a fairytale is.
In his preface to Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, Phillip Pullman draws on James Merrill to define the fairytale. A fairytale, he says, is a story with a “serene, anonymous” narrator populated by “conventional stock figures/ afflicted to a minimal degree/with personality.” Pullman then adds the virtue of celerity to the mix. Things happen at a madcap, dreamlike pace in fairytales; change is violent, constant, and inevitable. He concludes his preface with a warning: it is not, he warns his reader, a text. The mutability of a fairytale seeps into the words chosen to tell it: no tale is ever told the same twice, and the only genuine telling of a fairytale is a new one. It is a story made perfect, as Novik writes about a beautiful spell, “by living in that golden space of vague and loving memory.” A fairytale, told true, is ephemeral.
Uprooted isn’t, by any limb of this definition, a fairytale. It’s narrated by Agnieszka, it has characters with motivation and personality, and it is, most crucially, a text. And yet. Agnieszka provides perspective without very much interiority; she’s always moving too quickly and too shambolically. We witness what she’s feeling, but rarely what she’s thinking—mostly because, like most teenagers, she’s hardly ever actually thinking.
The book’s other characters also escape being caricatures, but just barely. We never really understand, for instance, why the Dragon is such a cold and insensitive person, beyond the fact that he was unlucky in love, once, a hundred years ago. Novik’s marvelous Temeraire series proves that she has a rare gift for writing well-rounded, fascinating characters, a gift that occasionally glimmers in Uprooted, during the scenes between Agnieszka and Kasia. Her inattention to the other people in this novel, thus, can only be intentional, a sacrifice made to plot and celerity. What she does retain, though, is her amazing ability to create chemistry between her people. The romance between Agnieszka and the Dragon, clichéd as it is, should never have worked, but mysteriously does, while the friendship between the girls feels deep, true, and earned.
Novik deviates most profoundly from the fairytale by giving her antagonist as well her protagonists a personality, albeit one drawn in similarly broad strokes. Fans of her Temeraire books will know that she takes tremendous pleasure in upturning her characters’ received wisdom, in deconstructing and reconstructing the way they look at the world. Such reversals unfold with slow subtlety across those novels; in this one it happens abruptly (if predictably). In the final few chapters of the novel, Agnieszka and the Dragon go deep into the forest and discover it isn’t as essentially, inexorably evil as they thought—that it, too, was once brutally tortured. It’s hardly a surprising revelation, but it fails less because of a lack of surprise than a lack of wonder.
In the introduction to his compilation of modern fairy tales, Spells of Enchantment, Jack Zipes writes that a literary fairy tale is characterized by its ability to induce wonder. “Wonder,” he continues, “causes astonishment. . . . It gives rise to admiration, fear, awe, and reverence. The Oxford Universal Dictionary states that wonder is ‘the emotion excited by the perception of something novel and unexpected or inexplicable; astonishment mingled with perplexity and bewildered curiosity'. . . . The tales seek to awaken our regard for the miraculous condition to life.”
But how then is such a sense of miraculous wonder to be produced? Zipes suggests that this is a natural consequence of a plot that hurtles from one implausible thing to the next, and of characters who simply accept their inexplicable world without questioning it. It’s an explanation that works, perhaps, for the short stories that Zipes collects in his book, but it falls apart when it comes to novels. No reader and no character can simply suspend disbelief for that long: a novel has to have an internal logic, a chain of causation and justification that undergirds all the weird and wacky things that happen in it. In a novel, awe-inducing wonder doesn’t manifest through the plot, it manifests through the prose, as anyone who has read and loved Mythago Wood, for instance, realizes intuitively. Unfortunately, this is where Uprooted finally disappointed this reader. In the last chapters of the book, the novel moves away from the human world and into the heart of the magical woods, but the prose doesn’t keep up. It remains rooted in the desire to make sense, rather than in a desire to make magic. Instead of opening up another world unmoored in time and in memory, the book seems determined to make this firmly our world, which is also faced with the urgent decision to tend to the wild or to destroy it. Novik’s impulse in this final section seems to be one of demystification, and so she takes a fairytale and makes it an allegory—an aesthetic and political decision that each reader will have to judge for themselves. Uprooted is a novel that could have been marvelous, but it settles for being fantastic.
Uprooted isn’t a novel that stands up well to rereading, at least not until its entire breathless sequence of events has been thoroughly forgotten. It is, however, almost a perfect trapeze act: a book that often comes perilously close to collapse and yet, by some powerful alchemy, soars instead. Read it, then, overnight, especially if you have ever wanted to go to Middle-earth on a quest to find the Entwives.
Uprooted is a hard book to summarize in a way that's both succinct and accurate, because there's so much in it. But here is an attempt: a wizard called the Dragon watches over Agnieszka's small village and the villages around it, protecting them from the evil, possibly sentient, forest nearby. Every ten years, he chooses a girl from one of the villages to accompany him to his tower. Agnieszka is confident that her best friend, Kasia, will be chosen, and so she hates and fears the Dragon. When he comes, he chooses her instead—and they both discover that Agnieszka is very good at a very unorthodox kind of magic. The rest of the book is, roughly, a series of episodes in which Agnieszka grows into her power, joins back up with Kasia (who she must rescue from the Wood), falls in love, navigates social conventions in the capital city, and, eventually, with the Dragon and Kasia by her side, defeats the Wood—although it's something of a complicated defeat. It's a story about true friendship, and true love, and also tangled, really cool magic that both makes intuitive sense and seems to run far deeper than the book has time to tell us. But the best part of Uprooted is Agnieszka.
Agnieszka narrates the book, so we get to know her as she learns about herself. At the beginning of the book, she describes herself as not much more than a caricature. She tells us she's a girl who's only notable for her clumsiness, if she's notable for anything at all. But she describes Kasia, her best friend, almost in opposition to her, and her description of Kasia blossoms out beyond any kind of stock character. “She had thick wheat-golden hair that she kept in a braid to her waist, and her eyes were warm brown, and her laugh was like a song that made you want to sing it. She thought of all the best games, and could make up stories and new dances out of her head. . . .  I know I'm making her sound like something out of a story. But it was the other way around. When my mother told me stories about the spinning princess or the brave goose-girl or the river-maiden, in my head I imagined them all a little like Kasia; that was how I thought of her” (p. 5). There is real love in this description, not just blind admiration. In the way Agnieszka describes Kasia, she immediately proves her self-perception wrong. She is a full and fascinating person, and I believed every inch of her. She flounders and experiments, has no patience for injustice or purposeless rules, and manages to be true to herself, even as her perceptions of the world change.
Her capacity for exploration, and her ability to understand people as they are, make her other love story, with the Dragon, one of my absolute favorite parts of the book. The Dragon is impossible to like at first, as prickly and stubborn as he is—and he remains prickly and stubborn even as he grudgingly lets his guard down. Agnieszka doesn't wish him into someone different, and he, likewise, loves her for the very clumsiness that he finds intolerable. The scenes between them—including two physical ones—are so purely enjoyable that I want to reread them just writing about them; but they're like that because of the deep character work that goes on.
The magic of Uprooted is as good as its characterization. Many of the spells that Agnieszka spends time wrestling with in the Dragon's tower return again and again in different contexts. Magic in Uprooted is versatile by definition—this is what Agnieszka discovers, and why the Dragon is so often frustrated with her. But we're actually able to see how versatile it can be through these repeated appearances, because Agnieszka's magical workings, like her personal development, take the form mostly of experiments. She picks out a spell that seems close to what she needs, weaves it with a tune she knows in whatever pattern seems to fit, and hopes it works. One spell, “vanastalem,” is primarily used for dressing the user, and the Dragon originally means for Agnieszka to use it for new, unmuddied clothes. But the spell is also used for disguises, and, at one point, as a method of self-defense. Magic can do some incredible things when pushed, and Agnieszka, who is almost incapable of doing magic the “right” way, is very good at pushing it.
Her form of magic is opposed entirely to the Dragon's complicated, strict spellbooks, and it has an excitement to it that comes from its uncertainty. Agnieszka describes it to a bemused Dragon like this:
“[The way you say the spell] is just—a way to go. There isn't only one way to go." I waved at his notes. "You're trying to find a road where there isn't one. It's like—it's gleaning in the woods," I said abruptly. "You have to pick your way through the thickets and the trees, and it's different every time.” (p. 88)
This describes Agnieszka as well as it describes her magic, and is probably as close as I can get to explaining why Uprooted is so good: Agnieszka loves to explore, to experiment, and she thrives on having the freedom to mess up, over and over again. She's curious and full of excitement, and she is always able to be flexible, to adapt her views without ever straying from what she believes to be most important. Dvernik, her hometown, is her favorite place in the world; she loves Kasia and her family, and, eventually, the Dragon, too. When she is gleaning in the woods, she doesn't quite know what she's looking for, but, at the same time, she's talking about gleaning in a specific place: the woods by Dvernik, the place she loves best. Agnieszka is able to explore the nuances and changes of all of her fiercest loves, and, in doing so, understand them deeply. And the excitement she has in doing this, the beauty of how she finds things—and her occasional haplessness, the fact that she can be sullen and jealous and immature, and her grudges—make her someone I really wish were real.
The book allows Agnieszka almost too many successes with her magic, though, once she's finally proven herself. After the first real test of her magic, where she has to save her village and comes close to failing, she never makes a big mistake again. She never chooses a spell that's completely wrong, and her magic, although not perfect, always seems to understand what she means and wants to do. Maybe this is just what happens when you've mastered magic in the world of Uprooted, because the Dragon has a similar relationship with it. His failures are a matter of scale, or stubbornness, or lack of physical energy, and never a magical mishap. But he is a master; Agnieszka is still learning. One of the reasons I loved her so much was because she was allowed to make mistakes, and recover from them in her own particular way. This remains true for the whole novel, but, when it comes to magic, her mastery arrives too quickly. I don't want to wish even more trouble onto Agnieszka, but I want to know how she would have dealt with it. It seems odd, in a world full of such real confusion and turmoil, that she wouldn't have to.
My only other real beef with Uprooted is that it can feel scattered when taken all together. Either the Dragon or Kasia alone would have been enough of an emotional force to drive a different book, and the added weight of Agnieszka's newfound, unorthodox magic, the importance of the land she comes from, and the mythology of the Wood, means that the book has to let each take turns. For the most part, the turn-taking is successful. But things sometimes feel lost when Agnieszka has to go to the capital city in an attempt to save Kasia, leaving the Dragon behind to fend off the Wood. Here, for the first time, Agnieszka leaves the place she comes from, and she spends a lot of these chapters just figuring out how to navigate her new environment and trying to make sense of the tangled politics that have suddenly become crucial. She doesn't get to explore her budding relationship with the Dragon, and although she is there to save Kasia, the two of them don't see each other very much.
So Uprooted isn't a perfect book. But that doesn't matter, because it's a great one. The magic is wonderful, and the characters at its center are even better. It has moments of happiness and whimsy, but also sorrow and fear, and all of these are shaded by how Agnieszka thinks and feels. And it has a quality to it that I'm always searching for when I read, consciously or not: it feels like a friend, one I can trust. It's a book I want to always have on hand.