Uprooted: Magic that Works

I really loved Naomi Novik’s fantasy novel Uprooted. In addition to being an author she is also a computer game designer. Much of her novel echoed aspects of the old Sierra adventure games like King’s Quest and Quest for Glory. So maybe part of it is just my 90’s nostalgia, but I loved it.

Her characters were great, her world was well-developed, and her folk story foundation was rock solid. But the crowning masterpiece of this book is the magic.

It’s hard to come up with a workable magic system for a fantasy world. If you’re not careful, you end up with the solution to all of your characters’ problems being right at their fingertips. Then you need to come up with some convoluted reason why magic can’t fix this particular problem. This is compounded when your main character is the most powerful wizard to be seen in hundreds of years, which is another fantasy staple.

So the question becomes, how do you make your character special without giving them unlimited power? Naomi Novik has found the answer in Uprooted.

Agnieska lives in a region protected by a Dragon (not a real dragon, just a wizard known by that name). Every ten years he picks a girl to be his servant. Everyone knows that he will take Agnieska’s best friend Kasia, who is beautiful and graceful and everything that Agnieska is not. But then choosing day comes and Angieska is the one taken.

Once back at the Tower, the Dragon tries to teach Angieska magic, but she is a horrible failure at it. Then she finds a little book full of spells that all work for her. The Dragon is stymied, as no one considered those spells any good, and eventually it all comes out. Agnieska does magic differently than other wizards do.

This is a brilliant move on Novik’s part. Agnieska is not more powerful than everyone else, but she can do things they can’t. On the flip side, things that come easily to them are hard for her. And when she works with someone, combining their two forms of magic, they can accomplish even more.

This gives them their best chance yet to beat back the Wood, a malevolent power that corrupts everyone that comes in contact with it. But it also creates even more problems. Working magic together is kind of intimate. What if no other magic user is around to work with you? What if the only one available isn’t someone you’re comfortable forming that type of connection with?

Novik’s magic system sets up a framework that allows her characters to break new ground while still providing limits. When you combine this with a world-weary sorcerer with a dry sense of humor, a determined heroine who makes things up as she goes along, and a sinister villain whose power reaches farther than anyone ever guessed, the resulting story is simply magical.

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