Uprooted, by Naomi Novik

UprootedAsk a writer how a book came to have a particular title and you might get any number of answers. Sometimes the writer chooses the title, and that title might not be the same over the course of the writing of the book. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, was originally titled Offred. I don’t think Offred would have been as popular a novel as The Handmaid’s Tale turned out to be. A title needs to at least seem somewhat transparent. Atwood, a poet as well as a novelist, is unusually sensitive to how her words are perceived, in my opinion.

Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, was originally called The Kingdom by the Sea. What would the past 60 years of popular culture have been without “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all…”

Would William Faulkner be so well known if he’d written Twilight, instead of The Sound and the Fury? And Jacqueline Susann is so tone deaf (as evidenced by her prose vis a vis The Valley of the Dolls) that she initially called it They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen. IIRC, that one was changed by the publisher, and lucky for Ms Susann they did.

Uprooted, as a title, does two things. One, it both reveals and obscures major plot elements. Two, the novel uproots traditional Western fairy tales, giving common tropes a little light and air. A bigger pot to grow in, if you will. I have no idea how this novel got titled–whether it was the author, the publisher, or a barista; whether it was the first or hundred-and-first title–but it works.

The heroine, Agnieszka, lives in a village near a forest. As required, there is a dragon and a wizard, which happen to be the same being, and every once in a while, on schedule, a young girl is sacrificed (sort of) to the Dragon. A beautiful girl, of course, well loved, smart, charming, with an appropriately musical name, is the usual sacrifice.

When Agnieszka comes of age, everyone expects Kasia, Agnieszka’s best friend to be taken, but no. All unwilling and unprepared, Agnieszka is instead taken to the Dragon’s tower, and that’s when the story gets really interesting.

Uprooted is a story of magic and healing. Agnieszka never does quite what is expected, either by her fictional counterparts and antogonists, or by the reader. She’s not an entirely comfortable heroine. At times, she’s downright unlikable, but she’s human and real.

I would totally read this book again. I read the first few Temeraire novels, enjoying the world and characters briefly, before I got bored. Uprooted works better for me, and I hope it is never expanded into a series. It works beautifully as a stand-alone story. Also, the cover is lovely and very appropriate to the type of story within, if you are into judging books by their covers.

2016 Hugo Eligibility: Yes, May 2015
Publisher: Del Rey
Rating: 3/5
Genre: Fantasy


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