Audiobook Review: Uprooted

Uprooted“Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.”

Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.

Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.

The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.

But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.

 

This tale of magic and love is infused with an old-world fairy tale sensibility, and the entire experience is truly special.

Agnieszka is a simple village girl, but she’s well aware of the danger of the Wood. When she is chosen by the Dragon to be the next girl to be kept in his tower, she’s startled and resentful, and feels completely out of place. She’s always messy, unable to get through an hour without ripping her dress, snarling her hair, and coming out stained and mussed. This irks the fastidious Dragon no end. But as she spends time with him, Agnieszka slowly comes to realize that she has magic of her own — not the formal, “scientific” magic of the Dragon, but something uniquely hers, rooted in her beloved Valley and infused with the power of the earth, water, and sky around her, much like her inspiration, the legendary Baba Yaga.

Little by little, Agnieszka and the Dragon discover an ability to work together and combine their magic into something that’s greater than either can do on their own. Before they can get too far with their discovery, though, disaster strikes as Kasia is taken by the Wood, and it’s up to Agnieszka to find a way to reclaim her best friend before she’s consumed by corruption.

The Wood stared back at me out of Kasia’s face: an endless depth of rustling leaves, whispering hatred and longing and rage. But the Dragon paused; my hand had clenched on his. Kasia was there, too. Kasia was there. I could see her, lost and wandering in that dark forest, her hands groping ahead of her, her eyes staring without seeing as she flinched away from branches that slapped in her face, thorns that drank blood from deep scratches on her arms. She didn’t even know she wasn’t in the Wood anymore. She was still trapped, while the Wood tore at her little by little, drinking up her misery.

The stakes build and build throughout the story, as the entire kingdom is plunged into strife and ultimately war as the Wood’s influence extends to the capitol city and threatens the world beyond as well. Agnieszka and the Dragon have to lead the fight against the Wood, but more than that, they have to find a way to get to the source of the Wood’s malignant power if their home and their people are to survive.

Uprooted is a captivating tale, start to finish. Agnieszka is an unusual main character — strong willed, able to stand up for herself, and devoted to those she loves. It’s thrilling to see her develop from a young, unskilled girl full of self-doubt into a talented, capable, strong woman. She thinks on her feet, defies authority when she knows she needs to, and devotes herself to figuring out what’s right and what’s wrong.

The evil of the Wood is terrifying. At times, all seems lost. The descriptions of the Wood’s poisonous intent and seemingly undefeatable power are scary and haunting, creating a mood of despair and horror.

The story culminates with a battle between good and evil, but even there, there are nuances and shades of grey. There’s a deeply affecting story beneath the Wood’s awful terror, and Agnieszka has the wisdom to understand that finding out the past is the only way to see a path toward the future.

The language and imagery of the story is beautiful, especially Agnieszka’s growing magical powers and the descriptions of her spell-weaving and enchantments.

And what’s a good fantasy without a love story? The love story in Uprooted is mostly a quiet thread woven throughout the greater tale of good and evil, malice and redemption — but when it comes to a boiling point, it’s steamy and sexy in all the right ways.

I listened to the audiobook of Uprooted, which was both a great and frustrating experience. The narrator, Julia Emelin, is not (as far as I could tell) a native English speaker. Her Russian accent was an irritant at the beginning, as I found some of her phrasing and rhythm slightly odd and off-putting. But, as I got more into the story, I started to find the narrator’s accent a plus. The people and place names in Uprooted are all Polish and Russian-flavored (Dvernik, Marek, Rosya, Alosha, Marisha), and the voice of the narrator became, for me, yet another piece of the whole, creating a mood that felt magical and outside of the everyday.

As to why the audiobook was frustrating: If I’d had a physical copy of this book in my hands, there’s no doubt that I would have binge-read until all hours of the morning. Uprooted is the kind of story that I’d normally gobble up as quickly as possible. It was so difficult to go at the speed of the recording. I ended up listening in 1.25x speed, because I didn’t have the patience to listen at normal speed, but even so, I was so caught up in the story that I couldn’t wait to keep going. I came close a few times to switching over to a hard copy, but by then, I was under the spell of the narrator’s voice and didn’t want to lose the mood created by the audio, which made me feel as though I was listening to Agnieszka telling her own tale.

Ultimately, listening to Uprooted was a magical experience. The story itself is gorgeous, and the audiobook’s rhythms add to the total effect. I loved the narrative, the characters, and the folktale feel of the book, and know that it’s one I’ll want to read again… and perhaps again after that.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Uprooted
Author: Naomi Novik
Narrator: Julia Emelin
Publisher: Del Ray
Publication date: May 19, 2015
Audiobook length: 17 hours, 43 minutes
Printed book length: 435 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Library (Overdrive)

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