There's a lot of evidence around these days that traditional publishers are slowly slipping under. But they do sometimes fill their traditional role as gatekeepers - now filters - separating good fiction from bad. I'm happy to say that's the case with Del Rey (one of my once favorite, now diminished publishers) and Uprooted.
I'd never heard of Naomi Novik before seeing this book on NetGalley, but the cover and description caught my interest. That lack of awareness led me a little astray. In the first few pages of Uprooted, I was sure I was in the hands of young but growing talent - a writer who was still fledging, but destined for good things. Rather to my surprise, it turns out Novik has quite a few books under her belt. That accounts for the skill she shows, but throws a harsher light on some of the book's shortcomings.
Novik seems to specialize in fantastic alternate history, and that's what she offers here. She draws on Slavic languages, which I found a pleasant change from the norm. However, it soon became evident that the setting was not just vaguely Polish, but an actual alternate Europe, complete with Baba Yaga references. Because the parallels don't really add much to the story, I found them rather disappointing - suggesting a lack of effort, perhaps. It's also disappointing that while Uprooted has a strong female lead, she lives in a somewhat traditional world - men fight silently, women dress up, though both do lead.
The broad outlines of the story are equally familiar - a teen romance of awkward but plucky young girl, handsome but distant sorceror, and circumstances that force them to become close. What makes Uprooted stand out is Novik's facility with language and character. No verbal pyrotechnics here, just a fine balance of imagery, action, and dialogue. At the same time, Novik stumbles over some genre norms that I would have expected a practiced writer to catch.
The characters, for all their stock-romance nature, feel real and sympathetic. While much of the action is predictable, we care about Agnieszka and Kasia, though the Dragon remains underdeveloped. To her credit, Novik veers clear of the Hollywood ending, and the character element remains strong throughout.
All in all, Novik has made a nice, surprisingly effective novel out of off the shelf ingredients. When I thought she was a new talent, I meant to watch for her books and hope that she reached for a little more originality in future. As it is, I assume she's reached her stride. I'll certainly be interested to consider her new books, but hope they'll dive a little deeper into worldbuilding. In any case, I recommend this book. Pluck Uprooted off the nearest shelf and enjoy it.