Agnieszka loves her village, set deep in a peaceful valley. But the nearby enchanted forest casts a shadow over her home. Many have been lost to the Wood and none return unchanged. The villagers depend on an ageless wizard, the Dragon, to protect them from the forest's dark magic. However, his help comes at a terrible price. One young village woman must serve him for ten years, leaving all they value behind.
Agnieszka fears her dearest friend Kasia will be picked at the next choosing, for she's everything Agnieszka is not - beautiful, graceful and brave. Yet when the Dragon comes, it's not Kasia he takes.
Naomi Novic's name has been on my reading list for years, and while I still haven't started her acclaimed Temeraire series, I finally got round to read her YA novel, Uprooted. What I loved about the book even before I started reading it, was the fact that it was one book, one story, rather than one story told over a series of books, which seems to be almost the rule for fantasy novels nowadays, adult or YA. So, if you don't feel like tying yourself in for multiple books (and impatiently await the publication of the next instalment), this is the novel for you.
And what a novel it is! It starts off with Agnieszka and her village getting ready for a choosing. Every ten years the local wizard, an ageless and much feared man called the Dragon, selects a 17 year old girl from the valley to serve him in his tower for the next ten years. Legends say he eats the girls, but already in the first sentence, Agnieszka assures the reader that that is not the case. After ten years the girls come back, but they are changed and quickly leave the villages of their birth. This year, everybody assumes Agnieszka's best friend Kasia will be taken. She is pretty, brave, talented, intelligent – the perfect girl for the Dragon. Yet, he chooses Agnieszka.
Agnieszka is in many ways Kasia's opposite. Still brave and intelligent, but her hair is always out of place, her clothes are never clean, and she is clumsy to the point where I wondered how she managed to survive this long. She is also stubborn and wilful and has no intention of either being bent or broken by whatever the Dragon has in store for her. Her determination, strong heart, and caring voice make her an endearing main character, who quickly had me rooting for her.
Being written in first person with Agnieszka as the point of view character, it is difficult to get the same insights into other characters, such as the Dragon or Kasia, and though they fall a little flat compared to the leading lady, they are fleshed out enough to become three-dimensional. The Dragon, for example, is not the easiest person to get along with, being overly fond of beauty, proud, and reclusive. Agnieszka constantly manages to baffle him, both with her clumsiness and her skill – or lack thereof. However, as the book continues, more and more depth gets added to his character as the relationship between him and this girl he took on changes and grows.
The story, too, pulled me in within just a few pages. Agnieszka's valley is overshadowed by an enchanted forest. Every so often people get abducted or disappear in the forest. Should they make it back out again, they are corrupted, their hearts filled with evil intent. Only the Dragon holds the forest's power at bay, and now, so does Agnieszka.
I couldn't put this book down. It has everything the heart desires: the threat of the enchanted forest, the magic that holds it at bay, a kingdom at war, a (not so) gallant prince, and even a visit to the royal court. Personally, the scenes set at court were the ones I least enjoyed, but on the whole strong characters and a fast paced plot made up for that. I give it 4 out of 5 stars.