Most of Naomi Novik's published work is an alternate history of the Napoleonic Wars with dragons, the Temeraire series. I'm intrigued by the setting, though I was always a little afraid that it would pale in comparison to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Based on this book, a standalone fantasy novel, I'm a little more inclined to give Novik's other work a shot. It's a very well-written and imaginative work that often evoked the works of Hayao Miyazaki, which I consider a big compliment.
Establishing settings is one of the great challenges of science fiction and fantasy; lots of works throw the reader into an unfamiliar world in a way that can be alienating for big portions of a book, while others give you a long, unattractive expository infodump before you can settle in. Novik focuses on characters and then skillfully unveils this fantasy setting in a compelling manner; this was probably my favorite aspect of the book. Uprooted takes place in a psuedo-eastern Europe, late medievalish, and with magic. The main character Agnieszka is a young girl from a small village in the country of Polnya (psuedo-Poland bordered by a psuedo-Russia called Rosya). The village faces danger in the form of The Wood, the diabolical forest that sends out creatures to spread its magical corruption. The village is protected by a powerful wizard that the villagers know as the Dragon, who demands in repayment that a young girl come to serve him for ten year periods. Agnieszka gets taken as the Dragon's servant, but she soon finds that she has her own magical talents, which disrupts the gruff Dragon's typical brusqueness.
It's actually a fairly generic set-up for a romantic story, and, of course, there is one, but there's a lot more going on as well. And the real strength is Novik's prose, which is clean and clear but with a fairy tale flourish. Novik is especially adept at describing magic; she always gives both the spells of our heroes and the dark magics of the forest a tactile component. She makes it easy to imagine the feel of magic. And, as mentioned above, she really evokes Miyazaki's animated film Mononoke Hime (one of the great depictions of magical corruption in film) in The Wood's corruption without it ever feeling ripped off. The first half of the book also manages to capture some of the dreamy Miyazaki pacing that make his films so transporting.
I did have some problems with the book, almost all in the second half. After slowly creating a fascinating world, Novik proceeds to blow it all up. The pace picks up quickly and the book gallops to an apocalyptic conclusion. I neither expected nor wanted all of this world's mysteries and problems solved, but Novik seems intent on doing so. Not only does this strip away some of the sense of wonder, it also pushes aside character development for plot development, and the plot just isn't as interesting as the characters. In a way, though, I mean this as a compliment. I wanted to spend more time in the Dragon's Tower, and more time with Agnieszka.
Anyway, another good choice for the Nebula awards. I'm glad I'm catching up, as I missed some great stuff.