“Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes.”
This opening line of Uprooted sets the tone for Naomi Novik’s self-aware fantasy where the Dragon is actually a wizard and the Enchanted Wood is a living nightmare. The fairy tale’s heroine, Agnieszka, thinks she’s ordinary but soon learns otherwise when she’s chosen by the Dragon. Novik is known for her worldbuilding, and Uprooted does not disappoint with its richly detailed magic systems, horrifying Wood, and glittering Royal Court. Rooted in Slavic folklore, Uprooted was inspired by a Polish fairy story called ‘Agnieszka Skrawek Nieba’ (Agnieszka Piece of Sky) about a young girl who breaks a curse on a village on the other side of the forest. Self-discovery, seeking the truth, and overcoming prejudices are important themes. If you love fantasy and dynamic protagonists who learn to challenge their preconceptions, here are nine other books you may enjoy:
1. Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik
If you like Uprooted, Novik’s second fairy-tale offering is a treat. Its three heroines are Miryem, a moneylender and businesswoman; Wanda, a peasant girl working for Miryem’s family; and Irina, a noblewoman who buys Miryem’s wares. Their storylines interweave as Miryem attracts the attention of the king of the Staryk (a race of ice elves), Wanda escapes her abusive father, and Irina marries the Tsar (king) and sets out to outwit a demon. There are many layers to the novel, but at its heart it’s a deconstruction of the story of Rumplestiltskin and a meditation on antisemitism, debt, and prejudice. Novik draws on her Polish heritage for inspiration as she did in Uprooted. Unlearning assumptions and recognizing shared humanity are key struggles that all three heroines go through in different ways. If I had to pick between Novik’s novels, Spinning Silver would be my favorite.
2. Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones
No list of fairy-tale-inspired books would be complete without Howl’s Moving Castle. It’s the story of Sophie, a girl who is turned into an old woman by a witch. So she goes to work as a cleaning lady for the Wizard Howl in hopes of breaking her curse. The plot is similar to Uprooted with its unlikely heroine being swept away to a wizard’s lair where she discovers her magic and takes on an extraordinary threat to the kingdom. The tone is more light-hearted, however, gently poking fun at the genre’s tropes and leaning toward wry humour and adventure. The understated romantic elements are also more compelling than those of Uprooted (sorry, Novik). The first book in the equally entertaining Howl trilogy, Howl’s Moving Castle is a fantasy classic.
3. The Book of Lost Things, by John Connolly
Unlike most books on this list, the protagonist of The Book of Lost Things is a twelve-year-old boy named David who finds a portal to a magical land at the end of his garden. He decides to brave the kingdom’s horrors to see the king whose Book of Lost Things might help him get back home. The characters David meets along the way are twisted manifestations of his fears and anxieties as he struggles to process his grief for his dead mother and resentment towards his new stepmother and half-brother. Dark and sometimes unsettling (misogyny and homophobia rear their ugly heads), David’s journey of self-discovery is more emotional than magical. It’s a story about growing up. Fairy-tale archetypes are used cleverly throughout, though the novel’s melancholy brings us crashing back to reality. This seems appropriate for a book that asks questions about the nature of stories and escapism.
4. Sabriel, by Garth Nix
If Uprooted caught your imagination, you’ll love the mythology of Sabriel’s universe. Sabriel’s Old Kingdom is a brilliantly realized fantasy world where the Dead can rise and only the Abhorsen can stop them with their seven magical bells. But the current Abhorsen is missing and it’s up to his daughter Sabriel, the untrained heroine, to find him. She must get to grips with her heritage and the magic of the Old Kingdom in time to save it from an ancient threat. It’s a complex and nuanced fantasy, featuring a mix of free and bound magic, monsters, bloodlines and objects like The Wall, which separates the magical and non-magical kingdoms. With a focus on necromancy and undead creatures, expect horror and excitement, as well as mystery. For original, fleshed out worldbuilding, the Old Kingdom series is hard to beat.
5. Poison, by Chris Wooding
Poison is a wonderfully dark metafiction story. It follows Poison, the title character, on her quest to enter the realm of Phaerie to rescue her baby sister who’s been replaced by a changeling. Fairy tales are prominently featured (the Bone Witch is particularly reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel), but its metafictional elements are the most interesting aspects of the book. Poison’s perception of reality and her attempts to influence the outcome of the plot make it a unique read. It’s also fast-paced and gruesome at times, akin to the horrors of the Wood in Uprooted. Like Agnieszka, Poison is a beguiling heroine who starts out as a defiant teenager and grows into a courageous and self-assured young woman. This book deserves your attention.
6. The Girl in Red, by Christina Henry
Christina Henry is known for retelling classic stories in surprising ways, and she tackles Little Red Riding Hood in The Girl in Red. In this modern version, the hood is a hoodie and Red is an axe-wielding young woman hiking through the woods to her grandmother’s house. Red does not want to stay on the path in this story as the world is a post-apocalyptic wasteland following a deadly plague that wiped out civilization. Like Uprooted, this is a self-aware novel; characters make Little Red Riding Hood jokes, and Red compares the dangers she faces — sexual predators, white supremacists (Red is mixed race), militias and the actual military — to the ‘Wolf’. It’s an excellent subversion of both storybook and real-life expectations; despite being a solo female amputee, Red proves to be a capable survivor who is handy with an axe. Henry’s knack for action-packed suspense makes this book impossible to put down.
7. Assassin’s Apprentice, by Robin Hobb
If you enjoy Novik’s magic systems, such as Agnieszka’s intuitive magic versus the Dragon’s structured spells, you will appreciate the dangerous and well-explored branches of magic in Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy. Assassin’s Apprentice is the first in the series and introduces Fitz, the illegitimate son of a prince, who is raised and trained to protect the interests of the royal family. Like Uprooted, the series’ worldbuilding is fantastic, eventually featuring dragons, seers and lost civilizations. Hobb delights in overturning reader expectations; for a fantasy hero, Fitz fails frequently as he struggles to harness his magical gifts of the Skill and Wit. Royal intrigue and existential threats to the kingdom drive the plot, and the protagonist and supporting cast are riveting characters.
8. The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker
The Golem and the Jinni is an interesting novel that takes a golem of Jewish folklore and a djinn of Arabian mythology and drops them in New York City at the end of the nineteenth century. Chava is a golem, a living servant made of clay, created to marry her master who dies during the crossing from Poland to New York. Ahmad is a djinn (genie) accidentally released from his lamp by a Syrian tinsmith. The period details are evocative, particularly the descriptions of the Syrian and Jewish neighborhoods where the main characters wind up, and an archetypal villain completes the fantastical picture. The story of the two magical immigrants attempting to find purpose and a home in turn-of-the-century New York is a touching and thoughtful exploration of ‘otherness’ and immigration.
9. The Last Wish, by Andrzej Sapkowski
On the surface, it may seem like just another macho fantasy, but Sapkowski’s Witcher series shares themes with Uprooted, as well as its folklore elements and self-awareness. The Last Wish is the first in the series, a collection of short stories introducing the world and characters of the Witcher, a monster hunter with supernatural abilities. The books share Uprooted’s themes of fearing “The Other” and looking past external appearances. They also play with fairy-tale conventions; short stories in The Last Wish draw on Beauty and the Beast and Snow White, for example. Sapkowski is Polish, so Slavic folklore and monsters feature prominently, which will please fans of Uprooted’s Polish flavor. The saga’s devoted following, video game, and Netflix series confirm that this book is worth the read.