Uprooted - Naomi Novik
(I was given a copy through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.)

This book had the edges of dark fairy tales, the ones in which the Happy Ever After only comes with of sacrifices, tears and deaths. Agnieszka and her family have been living for as far as they can remember in the shadow of the Wood, a malevolent forest-entity with a will of its own, and in that of the Dragon, a powerful Wizard (not a real dragon) who comes to the village of Dvernik every ten years to take a young woman. While he always releases them in good health, covered in riches, and seemingly with no harm done, those girls are forever changed, to the point of never staying the village again. Of course, it's not mystery here that the one who ends up being chosen isn't the brave and beautiful Kasia, but the other girl, the one that nobody would have considered. (This was to be expected anyway, but having it given away in the blurb was still a bit annoying.)

There's some romance in there, a kiss and a sex scene, and I admit I still don't know what to make of those. Granted, the romance didn't permeate everything, but there seems to be a consensus in too many stories that the guy has to be rude and challenging, and that if something happens, it's because the girl was there in the first place. Sometimes it's discreet enough not to leave a mark, and/or explained by the context; here, it was a tad bit too much on the "if you almost got raped, it's because you stayed in your room instead of leaving" side. (Another book I read recently had a similar scene; however, at least there it was somewhat "justified" in that the characters would be under the influence of magic, and knew beforehand that they would be liable to lose control hence the warning. Though not so much better, it made at least sense.)

Another instance had a character say he'd announce his betrothal to Agnieszka, to which she was all "wait, what?". Fortunately, it didn't devolve in what I thought it would: good thing.

The world itself and the magic made up for those problems as far as I'm concerned. The plot was slow-building, and while I wished it'd go a little faster at times, it also allowed me to really discover the country where the girls lived, and to "feel" the Wood at my doorstep, so to speak. I also liked the spells: repetitive for some, I'm sure; interesting for me, because it was nice to try and pronounce them. (The world has a definite fairytale Poland/Russia feeling, reminiscent of some of the lesser known tales I used to read when I was a child.) Imagining their effects, imagining the clothes people wore, was easy. The inclusion of court politics later added a layer of complexity, with Agnieszka not being sure of who to trust, and with other, dark examples of what the enemy could do.

Kasia ended up playing more of a part than I expected, and I loved her for that. I would have liked to see more of her, get to know her more. She probably would've been as interesting as Agnieszka (I'm positive that she wouldn't have spent so much time whining about her place in the Dragon's tower). The friendship between those two young women was beautiful, too: they were both exposed to each other's inner truth, to feelings each of them had secretly harbored, yet their bond and love for each other managed to survive and grow stronger, in spite of (or because?) that.

Agnieszka was somewhat annoying in the beginning, and a bit of the tomboy/as far as feminine as possible cliché. However, she "grew up" once she discovered what she could do, and decided to play her part while remaining herself, not giving in to peer pressure. She developed an inner strength and a courage of her own, instead of always admiring Kasia's the way she did before the time came for the Dragon to choose, and she never relented in her decisions, even when the latter would involve getting in dangerous (but necessary) situations.

3.5 stars. I wasn't awed by the romance, the "trigger" at some point made me really cringe, and the beginning and ending dragged a little. On the other hand, the world was really nice to read about, with an eastern fairytale approach that brought back a lot of memories; I liked how the main character progressed; and the Wood as an entity was fascinating, in all its twisted ways and convoluted schemes.