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.
He doesn’t devour them really; it only feels that way. He takes a girl to his tower, and ten years later he lets her go, but by then she’s someone different. Her clothes are too fine and she talks like a courtier and she’s been living alone with a man for ten years, so of course she’s ruined, even though the girls all say he never puts a hand on them. What else could they say? And that’s not the worst of it — after all, the Dragon gives them a purse full of silver for their dowry when he lets them go, so anyone would be happy to marry them, ruined or not.
But they don’t want to marry anyone. They don’t want to stay at all.
Agnieszka grows up in the shadow of the Wood, on the border of Polnya and Rosya, its corruption held back only by the continual efforts of the wizard known as the Dragon. She has known all through her childhood that it’s her best friend, the perfect Kasia, who will be taken at the Dragon’s next choosing. He always chooses the most beautiful, the most accomplished, the most special girl. So it’s a shock to everyone when he leaves Kasia behind and yanks Agnieszka through the air to join him in his tower. But the biggest surprise for Agnieszka is yet to come: she has a latent ability to do magic, herself, and Sarkan — the Dragon — endeavours to teach her, dragging spells out of her as painfully as if he were pulling teeth.
I hesitate to call any book perfect (what would that even mean?), but this one was pretty close to being perfect-for-me. At its heart, this is a tale driven by friendship and love, and by a philosophy of unconditional compassion extended to even the most brutal of enemies. There’s a beautiful passage near the end that I could have highlighted a dozen times over, where Agnieszka reflects as she prepares to face up to the evil at the heart of the wood:
I wanted her to burn, the way so many of the corrupted had burned, because she’d put her hold on them. But wanting cruelty felt like another wrong answer in an endless chain.
It begins with Agnieszka’s love for her friends, her family, and the entire community of her valley. She’s unhappy to be taken, but she’s determined to bear it for the sake of everyone left behind; when the Dragon leaves her alone, she doesn’t try to run away for her own sake, but when there’s an emergency in one of the villages she climbs out of the tower window to respond with what little power she can muster. The malevolent force at the heart of the Wood isn’t beyond using her love to try and trap her, but Agnieszka is stronger: even when the Wood takes Kasia, it only makes her more determined.
The magical system isn’t fully explained, but there are syllables that come together to make spells, and substances that lend their power. The wizards have well-established forms and conventional formulae, but these don’t come naturally to Agnieszka, and the simplest spells go awry between her lips. At first, she merely irritates the Dragon with her failure to grasp his most elementary lessons, but with the help of a half-forgotten book by Baba Jaga she begins to feel her way through to the source of her personal power.
I love the way that Sarkan and Agnieszka grow, together, throughout the course of the story, lending one another strength both magically and more mundanely. If you have ever been utterly exhilarated by working through a problem that seemed impenetrable, and particularly if you’ve ever done so in partnership with someone of complementary talents, I think you’ll find something recognisable in the way that their joint workings evolve. Agnieszka’s magic is fluid and natural, in sharp contrast to the regimented lines of Sarkan’s formal style; together they build something stronger than either could manage alone.
It is worth a few words more about the Dragon. Sarkan has been a recluse for years: he’s out of practice with people, he’s irritable and stand-offish, and even when he tries, his attempts at friendship are clumsy at best. Agnieszka has grown up afraid of him in the abstract, while he has dedicated his life to defending a community that fears him even as they rely on his protection. It isn’t the most auspicious of starts, and the fact that he’s kidnapped her is a huge stumbling block to any kind of normal relationship. But as they come to understand one another as people, imperfections and all, it feels inevitable that they should progress from challenge to co-operation; from fear to trust; from isolation to love.
If the story remained in the valley, with Agnieszka and the Dragon fighting back the encroaching corruption of the Wood, then this would still be an enchanting fairytale. As it is, the story takes on an epic scale, encompassing the politics of court and the sweep of history. There are smiling enemies and hard-won allies, and a magical sword that has been a hundred years in the making, and Agnieszka must learn more than magic if she’s to survive and save the things that matter.
And then there’s the ending, which is hopeful and uplifting and powerful all at once. I cried buckets, lingering over the final pages, unwilling to put the book down. And I wanted to jump straight back to the start and read it all over again, immediately.
Uprooted is published this week, and is Novik’s ninth book.