Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Currently Reading Just Finished
The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin
Because the deadline for Hugo nominations will have come and gone by the time this post goes live, I thought I’d share my five nominees for best novel:
- The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts
- Clade by James Bradley
- Lament for the Afterlife by Lisa Hannett
- Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson
- The Fifth Season by N K Jemisin
Prior to Thursday, Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie was on my ballot. But I’ve just finished N. K. Jemisin’s superb The Fifth Season and felt compelled to replace the Leckie with it. The Fifth Season, in my view, is Jemisin’s best novel – I was blown away by the world building, the unexpected turns in the plot and how Jemisin deals with issues of prejudice, oppression and slavery. But I’ll cover this in more detail next week when I review the novel.
If I had to pick a favourite, it would be the Adam Roberts, but seriously it’s a toss up.
Once again an award shortlist (the Nebulas) has introduced me for the first time to the work of an established author. In this instance it’s Naomi Novik who is mostly known for her eight-book (soon to be nine) Temeraire series. Uprooted, though, is a standalone novel that tells a self-contained story which immediately predisposed me to like the book. Just like Katherine Addison’s wonderful The Goblin Emperor it’s refreshing when a writer doesn’t feel the need to tell a multi-volume story just because they spent all this effort creating a secondary world. (I’m sure someone will burst this bubble by informing me that Novik is planning a sequel).
Novik sets her novel in a distinctly Eastern European secondary world. Agnieszka, our first person protagonist, lives in a small village that’s protected by a wizard who resides in a tower overlooking all the towns in the valley. Every ten years our wizard, with the menacing title “The Dragon”, comes down from his tower to choose the prettiest girl amongst the townspeople. No-one knows precisely what The Dragon does with the girl, but when she’s released ten years later she comes back changed. Not physically, but the girl no longer wants to live in the valley. With the current ten year-period nearly up, the townspeople are convinced that Agnieszka’s best friend Kasia will be chosen because of her great beauty and grace. So it comes as a complete surprise to everyone (except possibly the reader) when The Dragon ends up choosing Agnieszka instead. Agnieszka soon discovers that she has an ability that, for The Dragon, far outweighs Kasia’s beauty – she can wield magic.
At least for the first half of the novel Novik’s story follows a familiar path. Like Harry Potter and so many other magic novices before her, there’s something special about the way Agnieszka wields magic. While she’s hopeless performing spells based on the guidelines laid down by The Dragon, when she adapts those rules to something that’s more natural and organic, her power blossoms. So it’s no surprise when she starts to perform spells that even the great Dragon has struggled to accomplish. However, there are two elements that set this book apart from the well-worn, and frankly boring, average person turns out to be the most powerful magic user in the world narrative (AKA The Special Snowflake syndrome). The first element is that halfway through the novel Agnieszka, for plot related reasons, ends up heading to the capital city of Polnya but without The Dragon in tow. This major transition in the novel is jarring, but in a good way. It not only broadens the scope of the book but magnifies the growing threat of The Wood – which, as it happens, is the second unexpected element of Uprooted.
The Wood, in terms of idea and execution, is the highlight of the novel. Bordering the valley where Agnieszka lives it’s this low level threat that’s existed for centuries. People who enter The Wood either never come back or emerge many months later frothing at the mouth, corrupted by whatever lurks between the thick, imposing foliage. The Wood is also sentient – to a degree – and the threat posed by Agnieszka’s magical emergence compels it to expand its frontiers endangering the villagers and ultimately the kingdom. What’s unexpected is how violent and nasty The Wood is. While the cover of the novel suggests a splendid journey of self discovery and magic, there’s a strong body horror element once The Wood gets into gear. For those who are squeamish I warn you that Novik does not pull punches, there are graphic moments in this novel that would make a die-hard splatterpunk smile. But blood and guts aside, it’s The Wood’s manipulation of people – both good and bad – that impressed me the most, the way The Wood subtlety and then overtly weaves its way throughout the Kingdom.
For all that’s good about the novel, the relationships between The Dragon and Agnieszka comes close to undermining it all. I’ve skimmed the web and noted that readers both love The Dragon – and were disappointed when he had a diminished presence in the second half of the book – and his burgeoning relationship with Agnieszka. Good luck to them, each to their own. Personally I found the whole thing to be… tasteless isn’t the right word… wrong headed. From the get go The Dragon treats Agnieszka like dirt. And while she quickly works out that his rudeness and name calling is all bluster, the constant verbal abuse is fucking annoying. What makes it all the worse is that Agnieszka is such a wonderful, independent and empowered character. I kept expecting her to tell The Dragon to fuck himself, to take his attitude and shove it up his wizardry arse. Yet his vile attitude seems to turn her on. While I know it’s not Novik’s intent, Agnieszka attraction to The Dragon reminds me of all those dudebros sites that endorse a “treat them mean to keep them keen” attitude.
What saves the book is that The Dragon does fade into the background, that we get a let up from his bullshit, that we see Agnieszka kick-arse and take names without his help and ultimately use her version of magic to save the day.