This week I’m recommending `Uprooted’ by Naomi Novik. She is the author of the popular `Temeraire’ books about the relationship between a Chinese dragon and an English naval captain at the time of the Napoleonic wars. I had some reservations about this Historical Fantasy series but I’ve been completely won over by Novik’s new novel, which has a more conventional Fantasy setting influenced by Eastern European fairy tales. `Uprooted’ came out this Spring, so it is currently only available in hardback or as an ebook. The intriguing first sentence suggests that this is going to be another dragon-centred novel – `Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley’ – but Novik is just playing with her readers’ expectations. If you only want more of the same from Novik, you may be disappointed but I admire authors who dare to try something different.

In `Uprooted’ the story is told by Agnieszka (Nieshka), a girl who lives in one of the villages close to the sinister forest known simply as the Wood. Something monstrous dwells deep in the Wood. Anyone who strays into the Wood is lost and anything and anybody it touches is hideously corrupted. The villagers are protected from the malice of the Wood by their local Lord, a wizard known as the Dragon. Once every ten years the Dragon takes a seventeen year-old girl to serve him in his tower. The girls are released at the end of their service but they never want to return to their homes. `The Dragon didn’t always take the prettiest girl, but he always took the most special one’. This choosing year everyone is sure that the Dragon will take Nieshka’s best friend, bright and beautiful Kasia. Instead, he picks Nieshka.

Alone with the Dragon in his tower, Nieshka finds that her worst fears aren’t coming true but she is still baffled by the bad-tempered wizard’s attempts to teach her simple spells. It is only after an unfortunate encounter with Prince Marek of Polnya that Nieshka realizes she is a potentially powerful witch. When the Wood attacks her village while the Dragon is away, Nieshka has to discover her own form of magic, based on the spells of the legendary witch, Jaga. Nieshka helps her village and later risks her life to rescue her friend, Kasia, from a people-devouring tree. Then she and the Dragon combine their magics in a new way to purge Kasia of the shadows of the Wood.

This success leads Prince Marek to compel Nieshka to undertake a reckless expedition to rescue his mother, Queen Hanna, who has been imprisoned in the Wood for twenty years. Kasia and the Queen will both have to prove that they are free of the Wood’s corruption or be burned to death. Nieshka travels to the royal court of Polnya to meet her fellow wizards and witches but the evil of the Wood seems to follow her there, provoking murder and war. To bring peace, Nieshka and the Dragon must seek the heart of the Wood and confront the Wood-Queen herself.

Nieshka is a vivid narrator with a sharp turn of phrase. Her story gripped me from the very first sentence to the very last. I read it quickly and was sometimes enchanted and sometimes shocked but never bored. Once she’s uprooted from her beloved family and village, Nieshka’s life is filled with mysteries, challenges and nightmare-like experiences. Even when some of the mysteries appear to be explained, there usually turns out to be much more to learn. A book which seems for the first few chapters to be about a young woman’s magical and romantic education suddenly develops into a violent and disturbing story. I’ve categorized `Uprooted’ as Dark Fantasy with good reason. Terrible things happen to innocent people (and trees) in this book. After her `Temeraire’ series, Novik is an old hand at writing brutal unromanticized battle scenes but her talent for gruesomely inventive Horror is unexpected.

European folklore and Fantasy fiction are full of beautiful but dangerous forests; wild places where the rules of civilization are left behind and anything can happen. Novik has created a woodland setting that can stand comparison with Tolkien’s Mirkwood,  T.H.White’s Forest Sauvage (see my post of  December 2012), Holdstock’s Mythago Wood or Patricia Mckillip’s Forests of Serre (see my post of November 2013). Her Wood contains scary things, such as white wolves, the stick-like Walkers who carry off children, and massive heart-trees which can swallow a person, body and soul. However, it is the Wood’s effect on the nearby villages that is truly terrifying. Even `shambler vines’ or pollen from the Wood can transform crops into poison, domestic animals into monsters, and sane people into mad and murderous men or woman. Yet this is not the motiveless evil of what I would call Junk Fantasy. There does turn out to be a reason why the Wood has become so hostile to its human neighbours.

Novik’s Wood has the ability to bring out the worst in humanity and to expose people’s basest motives to each other. This works because there is real depth to the characterization in `Uprooted’. In her `Temeraire’ series, the secondary characters never came to life for me. Here they do. Prince Marek, for example, is not as heroic as his reputation suggests. He is arrogant and manipulative but also damaged and vulnerable. Unchosen Kasia turns out to have a destiny as remarkable as Nieshka’s and their friendship is convincing because it is full of tensions and unspoken resentments. Then there is the fascinating relationship between Nieshka, who describes herself as `a too skinny colt of a girl with big feet and tangled dirt-brown hair’ and the ageless wizard who has deliberately stayed detached from the people he guards. She starts by hating him; he thinks she has `an unequaled gift for disaster’. Their personality clash is described with great humour. More unusually, their slowly developing love is expressed almost entirely through the magic they do together.

Another of the things which surprised me about this novel was how good Novik is at writing about magic. She makes the spells used in `Uprooted’ seem thrilling and difficult. Each of the wizards and witches in this novel has a distinctive type of magic which fits the kind of person they are. The Dragon loves beauty, perfection and order, so his spells are `great intricate interweavings of gesture and word that went on like songs’. Nieshka’s magic is more earthy, passionate and instinctive. The Dragon is a book-loving intellectual. Nieshka’s spells draw on the traditional nature-magic of Slavic wise women. Baba Yaga, the great witch of Russian and Eastern European folklore (see my April 2013 post on `Prince Ivan’ ) is inserted into the story in a clever and subtle way.

Novik is drawing on her own Polish roots in this book. As you might expect from the title, `Uprooted’ looks at the roots of ancient conflicts and at why people put down roots in a particular place. It also explores what it means to be rootless, either by choice or because of some traumatic event. `Uprooted’ is a thought-provoking novel. In this era of frequent refugee crises, it asks when people should flee and when they should stand and fight to save their homeland. Oh and just when you’ve stopped expecting one, there is a dragon. Until next time…