Initial reaction: "Uprooted" is not only my first read from Naomi Novik, but it's also my second read of 2016. I have conflicted thoughts about this novel - not just taking the overarching TCO tone of the entire narrative into account. Sometimes that kind of narrative works for me, sometimes it doesn't. Mostly where it doesn't work is when it's filled with shades of what this book ended up doing in places - running Agnieszka's abilities in the hole for her potential role. I realized she wasn't perfect, but her emphasis on thinking she was a TCO and running into things with a grating naivete wore on me especially in the beginning. I was also bothered by Dragon in several measures, general attitude and from his rape-blame in the beginning of the book of Agnieszka (she was almost raped and you asked her why she dressed that way to seduce him?! And you altered the memories of the guy to make him think that he had sex with her? I came very, very close to putting the book down after that. It's a small moment to the rest of the story, but - I wondered why that was even a thing and what purpose it served, if not for the sheer offense of the entire situation).
There were moments when the prose in this book really shined through and I loved the atmosphere, the poetic nature of the writing, and how dark the wood and its respective evils were. Sometimes the prose had moments where it hampered the flow of the book though, so it took a while for me to get through this even with being a fast reader.
I shipped Agnieszka and Kasia's friendship - that might've been the saving grace that kept me moving through this, for the most part.
I'll meditate on my end thoughts on this more and let all of you know, but it'll probably be 3 stars - 3.5 stars for me. With several caveats noted. I wish I could've enjoyed this more, if not for its problematic issues, but overall, it had several good qualities that kept me engaged.
WARNING: Constructively expanded rant ahead (with some praise).
I think it's difficult to know where to begin because I'm mentally sitting on the fence about this book - thinking about how terribly problematic it is on one hand and on the other evaluating strengths that it brought to the table.
If I can say one thing though: I didn't like the romance in this book at all. I'm actively putting my foot down and condemning it, as much as that might be an unpopular opinion. To me that part of it I'd rather scrub my brain out and cite far stronger narratives in the realm of fantasy that have leads with strong chemistry and don't feed off of manipulation, control, and just plain ill dialogue to drive the dynamic. (Which Dragon/Sarkan ticked off all my boxes.) I'd label that as playing right into problematic relationship tropes. And considering this book touches - in a separate measure - on rape themes and occurrences more than once, despite the measures where it explicitly condemns rape, it makes the whole thing that much worse.
Before that, I'll expound upon what I liked about this book - and there's quite a bit that I did. I liked the action sequences and the richness of the prose with respect to showing visual details in places. I loved how Novik made the Wood into a character upon itself - because making setting into a character is a pretty cool thing, especially as an antagonist. It's something that has a ton of appeal, especially in fantastical realms. I applauded Julie Kagawa for crafting the richness of the Never Never in the Iron Fey series (both the original and the Call of Forgotten series). I applaud Naomi Novik for making the Wood as an entity of corruption in "Uprooted", cloaking whatever (and whomever) it touches and making the stakes high for conflict in that realm and for the vivid depictions of such corruption. Those are elements drew me into the novel. Some of the characterizations did too, but I'll get to that eventually as well.
I liked the general idea of the novel, which I'll take some time to expand upon now while it's in mind. Agnieszka is a young woman living in a small village where the Wood is an ever present threat with its mystical and corruptible properties (some of which are described in deliciously dark details). There's something of a saving grace from the danger with respect to a "Dragon" (they call him Dragon, probably on behalf of facets of his brutal personality, but there's debate as to who he actually is and what he can do) who protects them from the Wood, but at a cost. He takes young women from the village every ten years to serve him. Agnieszka doesn't really know what this means, though she knows of stories of the women who return not quite the same. She thinks that her best friend Kasia will be the one who's taken next, and she (as well as the rest of her village) are prepared for this possibility, except when the Dragon comes to make the selection, the needle mark doesn't point to Kasia, it points to Agnieszka. And this novel kickstarts on the note of explaining why and what happens after.
There's a TCO element to this, a.k.a "The Chosen One." Very common fantasy trope, but usually this in itself doesn't bother me. You can find this kind of thing from Star Wars to Disney's Aladdin, from the video game Portal to the Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts games. You can find it in the movie Highlander ("There can be only one.")
But how effective and convincing it is depends on how it's done. Because a TCO trope can quickly devolve from having a character who may have strong attributes mixed with palpable fatal flaws and a goal to root towards to a "special snowflake" who 1. Knows their special 2. Makes a note to the audience reminding them constantly that they're special, 3. Becomes defined simply by their special...ness, but then makes decisions that would indicate otherwise and leads to frequent facepalms while watching them interact with no end goal in sight or one that takes too long to get to the ultimate goal. (And as a reader, that's frustrating because this is someone we want to root for and watch them grow and learn rather than just making decisions that don't really have any value, meaning, or stagnant to no progression.)
Agnieszka is very much a borderline snowflake, and you could almost argue that she's fully that based on how this novel approaches her situation. Because it reminds the reader that only the smartest, prettiest, most talented people get chosen and Agnieszka is...not, but at the same time she is (in a contradiction that reveals itself as the story moves forward). You're left in the dark as to what she's doing in the Dragon's company, then learn she can wield magic, and with wielding magic without understanding what it is and thinking about the danger present she decides "Ooooh! I am the only one that can do this! I'm meant to do this." (Paraphrased.) But then she starts doing random things with magic she knows nothing about that have serious consequences that have no rhyme or reason from just her uttering phrases and I'm thinking "Wait...what made her decide to do these things again? Where is this going?"
That is a problem. Eventually, it does get to the point where the characters have to work together and have a series of goals, but it takes a while to get there. While there are alluring elements that engaged me - there were also elements that completely turned me off.
Don't get me started on the romance in here. I hated it. And that out of the blue sex scene was just awkward, even rage-inducing. Much of it on behalf of Dragon's attitude and actions. His emotional manipulation of Agnieszka was something I couldn't get behind either - I don't have the space to mention all of the incidents (plus: spoilers), but it's enough to where I reached a point of no return. Didn't care for it, didn't ship it. Characters with blunt attitudes are one thing (heck, even The Beast from Beauty and the Beast has more redeeming moments than Dragon does), but when you're constantly and constantly feeding putdowns, and then looking at the context of the situations in the story where the manipulation is apparent and against the interest of the character (and the character desires him in spite of that) - it's too much. Admittedly, as the novel goes on - Dragon/Sarkan has more purpose, but...would I say his development really comes full circle? Does he change or realize his behavior? Not so much, though the narrative seems apt to gloss over that factor with the ongoing conflict and not really dig into character conflict and consequence for more flesh.
On the other hand - I did see more chemistry and motivation in the relationship between Agnieszka and Kasia. In a measure where positive female friendships are not all that often prominently showcased - this was a breath of fresh air, and I almost wish that Kasia had even more of a role (maybe even a perspective piece of her own) from the point of the narrative. It might've provided more of a better balance and given a better balance to the overarching action and plot pieces of the book.
I feel like this book really skimmed over the character development and establishment of ALL the characters to a degree. I honestly wanted to pinch more flesh from them and craved more distinctive identity rather than just the whole TCO trope and conveniently established magic system. Novik can write her socks off when it comes to description, but when that description bogs down the narrative from answering pertinent questions about the missions, the character relationships and development over the journey, the overarching goals and takes far too long to get to those measures, it's a bad sign. This narrative dragged more often than not because of awkward pacing that I'll admit in certain points I had to push through just to get to the bits that I ended up enjoying.
In the end, I wish I had more space to compare and contrast elements of this novel about what I liked and disliked in ample detail. The female friendship, vivid imagery of the Wood and often beautiful turns of prose, and overarching journey might be the standout elements that kept me reading through this, but "Uprooted" really needed a lot more "root" for me to get behind it. A horribly abusive and lacking romance, a protagonist that acknowledged her own chosen status far too many times for my liking with not enough mettle to back it up (Kasia I think could've been the heroine of this novel just as much), prose that still could've been slimmed and trimmed further for flow, and lacking distinctive characterization that I could remember as setting itself apart from other fantasy stories lent me to think that this was just a decent read, not as stellar as I'd hoped unfortunately.
Overall score: 3/5 stars.