From the very moment Agnieszka and Sarkan met in Naomi Novik’s new book Uprooted, I knew they were going to get together.
In the heat of casting a spell, Agnieszka and the Dragon (Sarkan as he is also known) fall clumsily over one another landing in a heap of sweaty magical sex. The Cantrip, or magic spell, they were casting washes over onto them as they embrace in a moment that’s been a long time in coming.
I was sitting in a park reading the book when it started to describe his thin fingers plying their way around her body and Agnieszka’s desire to stop him, but also her desire to continue undoing his pants
At this point my eyes start to dart around and I start to sweat a little as people walk past me. The sexy time fades as they come to their senses, but it really left me wondering why the scene had to be included.
Why would Agnieszka, even in the heat of the moment, get entangled with a wizard who is centuries older than her? Is she just completely alone and afraid, so she’s reaching out to anyone for comfort? Is she in love with Sarkan? Could it be Stockholm syndrome?
Well it’s a little bit of all three it seems, which makes me question how reviews have portrayed Agnieszka as a strong female protagonist.
She’s constantly thinking about the Dragon even though he’s verbally abused her for the better part of a year and even when she rebuffs him he usually finds a way to win the argument by making it seem like it was his idea to start with.
I want to save people from The Wood’s corruption! You can’t you idiot! I just saved someone from The Wood’s corruption! Well it’s a good idea I sent you in there, so use this magic potion and you’ll see just how great of a wizard I am! And so on.
He’s made her into a servant and he does whatever he can to hold her back with the noble reasoning that using magic unwisely could bring about her untimely demise even though he put her into this position in the first place by making her his apprentice. He could have just left her magical talents alone instead of making her even more indentured to him and she could have just escaped the tower seeing as how abusive he is.
End the cycle of women being taken from the village. Maybe then he’d actually just pay servants to work at his tower. And yet the Dragon has his reasons for doing this as he explains much later in the book and I won’t get into as it’s in spoiler territory.
It’s best to start back at the beginning.
Living in a small village on the outskirt of a larger city, Agnieszka was one of group of young ladies who were trotted out in front of the Dragon to be chosen as his servant.
The young woman who enters into his tower stays there for 10 years before being released; however, they’re never quite the same. They always leave country life amid murmurs that they were most definitely taken by the Dragon as they head for the big cities to become trophy wives of the men in the court.
It’s a tradition that Agnieszka knows little about and she’s extremely surprised when she’s taken over the other candidates, especially her best friend Kasia.
Kasia is a young woman who was groomed to be the ideal candidate. She can sing, she can dance, she can cook; she has manners, she has beautiful blonde hair, and she’s just the perfect captive. Agnieszka was her best friend and also a tomboy in the village. She once ran into the wilderness on adventures, she never wanted to learn how to cook or clean, and she certainly wouldn’t be the Dragon’s first pick.
So when she’s chosen for the job, Kasia is understandably bewildered. Her entire life had been leading up to that moment, but she doesn’t despair because of his choice. The world outside of the tower is too unforgiving to hold back against someone whose feelings are hurt, so she bucks up and gets to work defending her village.
When Agnieszka escapes the tower later in the book when she sees that her hometown is in distress, she finds Kasia racing toward her. Kasia has been helping her village herd a trio of corrupted cows and is surprised to see her friend out of the tower.
She sees Agnieszka in her magically-spun jeweled gown and probably thinks about how well off her friend must be in the safety of the tower while everyone else suffers.
Agnieszka uses a potion called Fire Heart to burn and destroy the corrupted cattle with Kasia’s help as they bang against a makeshift pen created by the villagers in the town.
Agnieszka starts to realize just how horrible life is for the people in her village, and the problems have just begun. Every time they destroy part of The Wood, it seeks reprisal. Sometimes it takes people away and plants things called Heart Trees that grow The Woods’ influence through consuming humans. Sometimes it corrupts entire fields of crops making them inedible. And sometimes it chooses targets to make others venture into The Wood, which is what happens this time.
Knowing that Agnieszka is a loose magical cannon, The Wood steals away Kasia in order to lure the witch inside. It can corrupt the young witch if she tries to save her friend and make her magic its own.
What happens after Kasia is saved that shifted my focus from Agnieszka being the strong lead to Kasia being the stronger lead in the book.
The book is constantly focused on Agnieszka‘s experience as it’s written as a first-person account, but I couldn’t help wanting to know more about her best friend.
When corrupted by The Wood and then purged, Kasia becomes a kind of wooden doll. She’s still human and still has her memories, yet she has skin as hard as wood, the strength of three men, and the ability to quickly heal from wounds.
Kasia becomes this stoic warrior who just cannot be stopped while Agnieszka is still worried that she won’t be able to get the Dragon’s help while she wrestles with the politics of the wizarding world around her.
I want to know more about Kasia’s recovery and transformation, and not more about Agnieszka‘s worries about magic and what people think of her as a young witch. It makes me wonder what the book would have been like if it had been written from Kasia’s perspective.
Uprooted would be the tale of a best friend spurned by fate only to realize how much is at stake in the world around her. She would go through her own hero’s journey through being trapped in The Wood and subsequent battle to recover her humanity. She’d witness the barbarism of humanity while examining what she herself has become, and also have to contemplate how wizards and witches affect the world. She should have been consumed by The Wood, but Agnieszka saved her and transformed her into this thing she is now.
Kasia lost herself, but gained new life as an unstoppable warrior.
Now that sounds way better than Agnieszka‘s Stockholm syndrome driven love of Sarkan and the esoteric development of her magic abilities that is mostly done through singing, which was always a little cringe worthy for me.
Maybe I’m being a little hard on the protagonist here, but throughout the story I couldn’t help but feel Agnieszka was a little weak. She’s constantly being told by the Dragon how much of an idiot she is, yet she finds his insults comforting. She discovers that her magic has little real use as the royal court just sees wizards and witches as trophies rather than able-bodied warriors. And she’s constantly fretting over what she’s wearing.
Kasia couldn’t give a damn what the hell she’s wearing because she’s just driven a magic sword through some soldier’s stomach and is ripping out his intestines with her beefy tree fingers. See what I mean?
Kasia is just more interesting than Agnieszka, and her name is a lot easier to spell to boot.
Uprooted is undoubtedly a good book. Naomi Novik’s story unfolds in interesting ways. Agnieszka is a strong female protagonist and is the catalyst that makes all of the other character development occur, but she’s unremarkable in and of herself.
Her magic is stilted and limited as she draws power from a cup rather than an unlimited stream of magic.
Her emotions get in the way of her work with Sarkan always being required to save her in the end (except in the real end of the book where she uses her own kind of magic to purge The Wood of evil).
Her qualms with her appearance make her appear vain when she could just consult with a female witch she meets later in the book on how she could magically create some better-fitting attire.
And she’s constantly blacking out in the story always having to be dragged off to safety while she recovers.
In the end, she’s just the same young lady from a small village who was chosen by the Dragon, but now she has magic powers.
Kasia becomes something more than what she once was. She becomes a guardian of the royal family and a commander in the army. She becomes an unstoppable force of righteous justice and something more than human.
She even rebuffs the advances of a solider in the last parts of the book only to intimidate him by threatening to actually marry him, although she most definitely will not. She becomes a living legend, but her character remains extremely under developed.
I would absolutely love it if Naomi Novik would write a sequel to the book entirely on Kasia after the events of the first book. I want to read about her exploring new vistas in far off places. I want to read about her thoughts on her new life as a creation of The Wood, a shining beacon of strength and power. I want to read about her beating up strange monsters while showing the men around her she’s not to be trifled with.
Now that’s a strong female protagonist.