Exclusive First Read: Naomi Novik's 'Uprooted'
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Naomi Novik is best known for the Temeraire series — rousing adventure tales of a man and his dragon, set in an alternate-universe version of the Napoleonic Wars where France and England battle it out across land, sea and sky with the help of dragons.
But the Dragon in her new novel, Uprooted, is a man, not a monster — that's the name of the dreaded sorcerer who lives at the edge of a terrible forest, protecting the villages in his valley from horrors great and small, for a price. Every 10 years, he takes one village girl to his tower; 10 years later, he lets her go, with a fine wardrobe and a purse full of silver, but the girls are changed by the experience, and none of them stay home for long.
Agnieszka is convinced the Dragon won't choose her — she's plain, messy, magical only in her ability to rip and stain any item of clothing. But when she finds herself alone in his tower, she discovers the Dragon isn't as fearsome as he seems — and that her powers are more than they seem. Uprooted will be published May 19.
As little as I liked having magic, I was glad not to be so afraid all the time. But I was no prize pupil: when I didn't just forget the spell-words he taught me, they went wrong in my mouth. I slurred and mumbled and muddled them together, so a spell that ought to have set a dozen ingredients neatly out for a pie — "I am certainly not trying to train you on potions," he had said, caustically — instead mixed them into a solid mess that couldn't even be saved for my supper. Another that should have neatly banked the fire in the library, where we were working, instead seemed to do nothing at all — until we heard a distant and ominous crackling, and we ran upstairs to find green-tinged flames leaping out of the fireplace in the guest chamber directly above, and the embroidered bedcurtains going up.
He roared at me furiously for ten minutes after he finally managed to put out the sulky and determined fire, calling me a witless muttonheaded spawn of pig farmers — "My father's a woodcutter," I said — "Of axe-swinging lummocks!" he snarled. But even so, I wasn't afraid anymore. He only spluttered himself into exhaustion and then sent me away, and I didn't mind his shouting at all, now I knew there were no teeth in it to rend me.
I was almost sorry not to be better, for now I could tell his frustration was that of the lover of beauty and perfection. He hadn't wanted a student, but, having been saddled with me, he wanted to make a great and skillful witch of me, to teach me his art. I could see, as he made me examples of higher workings, great intricate interweavings of gesture and word that went on like songs, that he loved the work: his eyes grew glittering and dazzled in the spell-light, his face almost handsome with a kind of transcendence. He loved his magic, and he would have shared that love with me.
But I was just as happy to mumble my way through a few cantrips, take my inevitable lecture, and go cheerfully downstairs to the cellars and chop onions for dinner by hand. It maddened him to no end, not without some justice. I know I was being foolish. But I wasn't used to thinking of myself as anyone important. I'd always been able to glean more nuts and mushrooms and berries than anyone, even if a patch of forest had been picked over half a dozen times; I could find late herbs in autumn and early plums in spring. Anything, my mother used to say, that involved getting as dirty as possible: if I had to dig for it or push through brambles or climb a tree to get at it, I would come back with a basketful, to bribe her into sighs of tolerance instead of cries of dismay at my clothing.
But that was as far as my gifts went, I'd always thought; nothing that mattered except to my own family. Even now it hadn't occurred to me to think of what magic might mean, besides making absurd dresses and doing small chores that I would just as soon do by hand. I didn't mind my own lack of progress, or how much it maddened him. I was even able to settle into a kind of contentment, until the days rolled past and Midwinter came.
I could look out my window and see the candle-trees lit up in the squares of every village, small shining beacons dotting the dark valley all the way to the edge of the Wood. In my house, my mother was basting the great ham with lard, and turning the potatoes in the dripping-pan beneath. My father and brothers would be hauling great loads of firewood for the holiday to every house, with fresh-cut pine boughs atop; they would have cut down our village's candle-tree, and it would be tall and straight and full-branched.
Next door, Wensa would be cooking chestnuts and dried plums and carrots, with a slab of tender beef, to bring over, and Kasia — Kasia would be there, after all. Kasia would be rolling the beautiful fine senkach cake on its spindle before the fireplace, pouring on the next layer of batter at each turn to make the pine-tree spikes. She had learned to make it when we were twelve: Wensa had traded away the lace veil she had been married in, twice her height, to a woman in Smolnik, in exchange for teaching Kasia the recipe. So that Kasia would be ready to cook for a lord.
I tried to be glad for her. I was mostly sorry for myself. It was hard to be alone and cold in my high tower room, locked away. The Dragon didn't mark the holiday; for all I knew, he didn't even know what day it was. I went to the library the same as always, and droned through another spell, and he shouted for a while and then dismissed me.
Trying to cure my loneliness, I went down to the kitchens and made myself a small feast — ham and kasha and stewed apples — but when I put together the plate, it still felt so plain and empty that for the first time, I used lirintalem for myself, aching for something that felt like a celebration. The air shimmered, and suddenly I had a lovely platter of roast pork, hot and pink and running with juice; my very favorite wheat porridge cooked thick with a ladleful of melted butter and browned bread crumbs in the middle; a heap of brand-new fresh peas that no one in my village would be eating until spring; and a taigla cake that I had only ever tasted once, at the headwoman's table, the year that it was my family's turn to be her guests at harvest-time: the candied fruits like colored jewels, the knots of sweet dough a perfect golden brown, the hazelnuts small and pale, and all of it glazed and shining with honey-syrup.
But it wasn't Midwinter dinner. There was no eager ache of hunger in my belly from the long day of cooking and cleaning without a pause; there was no joyful noise of too many people crammed in around the table, laughing and reaching for the platters. Looking down at my tiny feast only made me feel more desperately lonely. I thought of my mother, cooking all alone without even my clumsy pair of hands to help her, and my eyes were stinging when I put them into my pillow, with my untouched tray on my table.
I was still heavy-eyed and grieving, more awkward even than usual, two days later. That was when the rider came, an urgent scramble of hooves and a pounding on the gates. The Dragon put down the book he was attempting to teach me from, and I trailed him down the stairs; the doors swung open of their own accord before him, and the messenger nearly fell inside: he wore the dark yellow surcoat of the Yellow Marshes, and his face was streaked with sweat. He knelt, swallowing and pale, but he did not wait for the Dragon to give him permission to speak. "My lord baron begs you to come at once," he said. "There is a chimaera come upon us, out of the mountain pass — "
"What?" the Dragon said, sharply. "It's not the season. What sort of beast is it exactly? Has some idiot called a wyvern a chimaera, and been repeated by others — "
The messenger was shaking his head back and forth like a weight on a string. "Serpent's tail, bat's wings, goat's head — I saw it with my own eyes, lord Dragon, it's why my lord sent me — "
The Dragon hissed under his breath with annoyance: how dare a chimaera inconvenience him, coming out of season. For my part, I didn't understand in the least why a chimaera would have a season; surely it was a magic beast, and could do as it pleased?
"Try not to be a complete fool," the Dragon said as I trotted at his heels back to the laboratory; he opened a case and ordered me to bring him this vial and that. I did so unhappily, and very carefully. "A chimaera is engendered through corrupt magic, that doesn't mean it's not still a living beast, with its own nature. They're spawned of snakes, mainly, because they hatch from eggs. Their blood is cold. They spend the winters keeping still and lying in the sun as much as they can. They fly in summer."
"So why has this one come now?" I said, trying to follow.
"Most likely it hasn't, and that gasping yokel below frightened himself fleeing a shadow," the Dragon said, but the gasping yokel hadn't looked at all a fool to me, or a coward, and I thought even the Dragon didn't quite believe his own words. "No, not the red one, idiot girl, that's fire-heart; a chimaera would drink it up by the gallon if it had the chance, and become next kin to a real dragon, then. The red-violet, two farther on." They both looked red-violet to me, but I hastily swapped potions and gave him the one he wanted. "All right," he said, closing the case. "Don't read any of the books, don't touch anything in this room, don't touch anything in any room if you can help it, and try if you can not to reduce the place to rubble before I return."
I realized only then that he was leaving me here; I stared at him in dismay. "What am I going to do here alone?" I said. "Can't I — come with you? How long will you be?"
"A week, a month, or never, if I grow distracted, do something particularly clumsy, and get myself torn in half by a chimaera," he snapped, "which means the answer is no, you may not. And you are to do absolutely nothing, so far as possible."
And then he was sweeping out. I ran to the library and stared down from the window: the doors swung shut behind him as he came down the steps. The messenger leapt to his feet. "I'm taking your horse," I heard the Dragon say. "Walk down to Olshanka after me; I'll leave it there for you and take a fresh one." And then he swung up and waved an imperious hand, murmuring words: a small fire blazed up before him in the snowbound road and rolled away like a ball, melting a clear path down the middle for him. He was trotting off at once, despite the horse's flattened-ear unease. I suppose the spell which let him leap to Dvernik and back didn't work over so long a distance, or perhaps he could only use it within his own lands.
I stood in the library and kept watching until he was gone. It wasn't as though he ever made his company pleasant for me, but the tower felt echoingly empty without him. I tried to enjoy his absence as a holiday, but I wasn't tired enough. I did a little desultory sewing on my quilt, and then I just sat by my window and looked out at the valley: the fields, the villages, and the woods I loved. I watched cattle and flocks going to water, wood-sleds and the occasional lone rider traveling the road, the scattered drifts of snow, and at last I fell asleep leaning against the window-frame. It was late when I woke with a start, in the dark, and saw the line of beacon-fires burning in the distance almost the full length of the valley.
From the book Uprooted by Naomi Novik. Copyright 2015 by Temeraire LLC. Reprinted by arrangement with Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.