Uprooted made quite a few “Best Books of 2015” lists, for good reason. On the one hand, it’s like an old fairy tale, perhaps in part a retelling – maybe a role-reversed “Beauty and the Beast.” On the other, it’s fresh and creative and enchanting. The magic of this book would have to include the spell it weaves around the reader, from the very first lines.
There are two warring kingdoms in this story, Polnya, from whence the heroine comes, and Rosya (clearly a fairy tale version of Poland and Russia). They are divided by the Wood, a living place of fearful creatures and almost certain death. A handsome wizard named Sarkan, known as The Dragon, protects Polnya in service to the King, and to that end he comes down to the valley from his tower once every ten years to pick an assistant. He takes only a girl of seventeen, born between one October and the next, so girls who will be of age during his selection year know they may be leaving for an uncertain fate, perhaps never to return.
Agnieszka never expected to be taken; she didn’t think herself anything “special.” And yet, the Dragon seemed to think it was she out of all the other girls who had the gift to make magic with him. And truly, this is what happens: they make magic together, in a strangely sensual way, and their intimacy grows.
But not at first: the Dragon thinks she is “a slovenly mess,” “horse-faced,” “idiotic,” with “an unequaled gift for disaster.”
Then Prince Marek arrives at the tower, with an assignment for the Dragon and Agnieszka, and even as they are plunged into mortal danger, they learn their true value to one another.
Discussion: There are so many outstanding facets of this book. The ideas of rootedness and blossoming winds around the story line like the vines Agnieszka and Sarkan create the first time they make magic together (think of the scene with Helen Keller finally understanding the finger-spelled words of her teacher, but with a sexual frisson). As they gazed at the climbing rose vines, the moss and violets, delicate ferns, and strange brilliantly-colored flowers everywhere in the room, Agnieszka later recalls:
“He looked at me, baffled and for the first time uncertain, as though he had stumbled into something, unprepared. His long narrow hands were cradled around mine, both of us holding the rose together. Magic was singing in me, through me; I felt the murmur of his power singing back that same song. I was abruptly too hot, and strangely conscious of myself. I pulled my hands free.”
Agnieszka also comes to understand that part of her skill derives from her roots in the valley, “drinking of whatever power also fed the Wood.” It is, however, the villagers’ capacity for happiness that keeps them from succumbing to the poison of the Wood. Agniesza feels this as a deep truth within her, but doesn’t believe she can convince Sarkan, who prefers, she thinks, to hide behind the stone walls of his tower “until he withered his own roots, and didn’t feel the lack of them anymore.”
She fights him every step of the way in this book, from her stubborn conviction that she could save her best friend Kasia who was caught by the Wood, to her insistence that what is superficial doesn’t matter; as The Little Prince learned, “what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Evaluation: Agnieszka is a heroine you will love. She is brave, loyal, authentic, and never willing to settle for what seems wrong or unfair. The relationship she has with her best friend, as well as the slow-burning feelings between her and Sarkan, are as enthralling as could be achieved by any spell.
If you loved Seraphina, you will love this one as well. Highly recommended!
Published by Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, 2015