Friday, September 4, 2015

Review: "Uprooted" by Naomi Novik

The Wood by Agnieszka's village is full of horrors. Over the years, it has swallowed up both peasants and queens, and its haunted trees grow over the ruins of ancient kingdoms as well as villages like her own. The Dragon keeps the Wood at bay with his wizardry as best he can. In exchange, he takes one girl from the village every ten years. After a decade in his service, the girl is set free--but she never comes home again.

Everyone in Agnieszka's village knows that her friend Kasia will be the one the Dragon picks: she is beautiful, charming, and brave. But to everyone's surprise--even to his own--the Dragon takes Agnieszka instead.


Uprooted by Naomi Novik (2015)
4 out of 5 stars 

Complexity of Writing: 4/5
Quality of Writing: 4/5
Strength of Characterization: 3/5
Logic of Plot Development: 4/5
Evocation of Setting: 5/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 4/5
Resolution of Conflict: 5/5
Emotional Engagement: 3/5
Mental Engagement: 3/5
Memorability: 4/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: pass
Content Warning: horrific imagery, attempted sexual assault
Overall Response: I really love fairy tales.


More Thoughts: I don't know what to say when people ask my favorite fiction genre. When I was younger, I would have said "fantasy" without hesitation. These days, my reading list includes very little fantasy. I eye airbrushed swords-and-sparkles covers with deep suspicion. Lists like "How To Tell If You Are In A High Fantasy Novel" make me cringe even as I laugh.

Naomi Novik's Uprooted (read on the heels of Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn) makes me suspect the trouble: I don't enjoy fantasy as much as I enjoy fairy tales.
I enjoy the rules of fairy tales. These are different from the rules of magic in fantasy books, which can become as detailed (and mind-numbing) as the periodic table. The rules of fairy tales are classic and familiar: events happen in threes; be polite to strangers; a strong heart and a good sense of timing can break a curse; and, as in physics, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

I prefer the woodblock folk art cover of the UK edition
to the Gregory Maguire-esque crosshatching of the US release.
I have the same trouble with Novik's "Temeraire" series.
Is the UK art always more tasteful?
In execution, Uprooted sometimes toes the line of fantasy, but its inception is 100% classic folklore. Historical, as well: I spent two-thirds of the book delighting in how much it reminded me of The Princess Curse (classic fairy tales set in medieval Eastern Europe) and Rusalka (witch-filled medieval Russian woods) before realizing that yes, Uprooted actually is set in Poland and Russia--in the dark ages when there really might have been a wizard living up the road, and monsters in the woods, for lack of more certain information.

It's hard not to name-drop when talking about Uprooted. It reminds me of so many other books I've read and loved, and others that started off similarly and let me down. (For that matter, remind me to reread The Bitterbynde so I can grumble about it.)

Novik's characters are lightly sketched rather than fully developed. This makes the length of the book a curious drawback: the scant characterizations that would serve a short fairy tale well are done a disservice by the more drawn-out novel. One starts to want more than "clumsy, reckless, but noble-hearted heroine," "misanthropic misguided wizard," and "brave best friend." (However nice it is to have such a wide range of female heroines, villains, and supporting cast.)

The underdeveloped characters, thankfully, don't detract from the story itself. I was thoroughly enchanted--when I wasn't on the edge of my seat. The atmosphere is perfect, the setting spot-on, the laws of fairy-tale magic exactly what you would hope for. I loved how Agnieszka describes her approach to magic as picking her way through a forest looking for mushrooms, where the path changes over time and cannot be marked, only discovered (in contrast to the Dragon's inflexible series of rites and chants.)

As I said, a strong heart and a good sense of timing.

Novik's alternate fantastical history of the Napoleonic wars, the Temeraire series, is a favorite of mine. It is fascinating to see what else is in this author's arsenal, as well as to read books written by an author young enough to have been influenced by the same books that inspired me as a child. (I am adamant that Uprooted contains at least one deliberate Robin McKinley reference, and no one can convince me otherwise.) It isn't perfect, but I am happy to continue reading whatever Novik turns her hand to next, and to add Uprooted to the underpopulated shelves of expanded fairy tales.

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