Friday, November 18, 2016

Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Published: Del Rey/Random House (2015)
Awards Won: Nebula, Holdstock, Locus F and Mythopoeic Awards
Awards Nominated: Hugo and World Fantasy Awards

The Book:

“Our Dragon doesn't eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that's not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he's still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we're grateful, but not that grateful.”

Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life. Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.

The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn't, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her. But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose. ~taken from NetGalley

I received half of the novel Uprooted in the 2016 Hugo Voter’s Packet.  When I’d finished the first half, I contacted the publisher as directed in the packet, eager to see how the story ended.  They kindly gave me the rest of the novel, which I finished in time for the end of Hugo voting (yes, I am behind in reviews again).  

My Thoughts:

Uprooted is an interesting combination of several genres, some of which I enjoy more than others. The novel begins more or less like a young adult paranormal romance. Young Agnieszka (a.k.a. Nieshka) is forced to live alone with the Dragon, a much older man with supernatural powers that treats her with cold disdain.  Naturally, some sparks fly.  However, romance is actually a rather small part of the overall novel, which is a story of friendship, politics, and a deadly struggle against an intelligent, pervasive malevolent force.  I was delighted that Nieshka and Kasia’s friendship plays an important role in the story, even after Nieshka’s choosing, and that Nieshka doesn’t forget about her origins.  For all that Nieshka’s world and understanding is broadened through the story, her home never becomes just a footnote in her history.  

Part of that is because it is the Wood that shapes much of Nieshka’s hometown, from the precautions they take against it to the support they provide their magical protector, and the Wood drives the story’s central conflict.  It is very effectively portrayed as a terrifying force of cruelty and death, to the extent that I would say this edges over into horror.  It is not simply a matter of the violence the Wood can inflict, but the corruption of the mind as well.  Someone straying within might die horribly, but they might also return home changed and murder their own family.  The combination of malice, intelligence, and patience makes the Wood an enemy that does not seem defeatable.  I think that having such a dangerous opposing force was part of why I was willing to accept Nieshka’s unusually fast rise in power and capability.  I felt that if she had not blossomed so quickly, she would surely have been cut short.

The story begins with some familiar fairy tale conventions (e.g. magical forest, periodic sacrifice of young girls) that are woven into a world which is a pleasure to discover.  Nieshka, growing up in a rural village, simply accepts even the stranger aspects of her life as normal.  With a suspension of disbelief trained by reading lots of speculative fiction, I assumed the same.  However, even Nieshka’s former quiet life has much more going on beneath the surface, and everything that happens in this story does so for a reason.  Many aspects of the story become more clear as Nieshka’s sphere widens to include more of her nation.  I was eager to learn about this world’s magic and the place of its practitioners in society, as well as details of the politics that become tangled up with Nieshka’s situation.  I think the richness of this world could easily support other stories, and I hope Novik considers returning here someday.

My Rating: 4 /5

Uprooted is a novel that draws thematically from a variety of genres-- such as fairy tales, romance, court fantasy, and horror -- to craft a story that kept me enthralled.  The malevolent Wood was a truly chilling antagonist, and I felt that its threat balanced well against Agnieszka’s hyper-competence.  I also appreciated that although Agnieszka was taken away from her home, it and her relationships there remained important to the story.  I enjoyed the time I spent learning about this richly-imagined world, and I hope that one day Novik might return here to tell another story!  In the meantime, maybe I should read Temeraire...

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