Review Soundtrack: Antonio suggest reading this review while listening to Likpa Zielona, by Ludowa Piosenka (YouTube).
Naomi Novik is an American author of Polish descent, famous for her dragon saga Temeraire. In Uprooted (inexplicably translated as Un cuento oscuro – A Dark Tale – in Spanish), the main character is Agnieszka, a commoner that lives in the hinterlands of a medieval alternative Poland.
In Temeraire's saga, Novik writes about a world where dragons, huge intelligent flying reptiles, exist and live “among” humans. Despite the dragons existence, the books portray no magic whatsoever. These reptiles are self-aware beings and have the classic dragon abilities: fire, acid breath; big size, flying capabilities, etc. However, there is no sign of magic and the Napoleonic Wars (historical frame where the saga takes place) are fought with muskets, rifles, cannons... and using the dragons as air transport, messengers and gunships.
In Uprooted, Novik gives a 180-degree turn and writes about a world without dragons (despite one of the main characters having the nickname Dragon) but with a huge amount of magic. She has mentioned in some interviews that she was looking to create a dark fable, as the ones of old, but modernised. There is a lot of that in the book, that has a clear debt to Ursula K. Le Guin. In fact, there is more than one point where Uprooted looks like A Wizard of Earthsea on steroids. The magic system and its use reminds me strongly of that and is poetic but efficient, specially on the first half. On the second half, speed seems to be a more pressing concern and everything is a little bit rushed. As a result, that second half is way less appealing.
One of the novel's strongest points is the characters. Agnieszka, absolute protagonist (she is the novel's sole POV), is perfectly defined and has a strong and clear voice. She's not dumb and Novik doesn't waste much time with unsolicited romantic elements (so typical in today's YA novels). Don’t get me wrong, it's not that they don't exist – in fact there is a couple of not-totally-PG-rated scenes – but they are well written and have its sense and purpose.
Dragon is one of my favourite characters. It is a mysterious and alluring creature. Even when we understand more about its thoughts, still it is an almost-alien being. Novik gave life to an absolutely fascinating character. Also require mentioning the Court Mages, specially Falcon. The most-misused-prize goes to Kasia. So much potential, so much promise being squashed by Agnieszka's own arc... Also Marek, with the afore-mentioned Falcon, are the bannermen of grey morality in the book (and, as a consequence, deeply interesting). For the whole novel, I fought myself over whether they were heroes or villains and I definitely settled as: I may very well do the same in their shoes.
Uprooted starts with a rather typical story, it manages to derail it a bit with a couple of interesting twists, but finally goes back to a threaded path. Possibly, that is the book's worst defect: once you've read the first half there is no room for it to surprise you. Even the main threat is something already seen several times. Nevertheless, Novik's writing lyrical quality has been rising since the first Temeraire novel and manages to move the novel forward with ease. So, the plot won't shock you, but it is a well written and efficient novel that is easily readable and very entertaining. Furthermore: is a total stand-alone. A rarity in the fantasy realm.
Novik's ending to Uprooted can be easily foreseen, but it is also extremely satisfying (maybe ignoring the last page). It may not be the Novel of the Year (o it very well may be, because awards are somewhat crazy these days), but it won't disappoint readers. Recommended to Le Guin fans that miss Sparrowhawk's adventures but dread what they may find if they re-read them.