Tuesday, August 4, 2015 |
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m a fool for fairy tales.  I will pick up almost anything with a fairy tale-like plot and like it.  I am very much the intended audience for Naomi Novik’s adult fantasy Uprooted.  And if all that it took to fall in love with a book was a mix of elements from past favorites, I'd be praising this one to the skies. It has the feel of a Robin McKinley book (McKinley is one of my all-time favorite authors, FYI).

I didn’t expect to find myself setting this book down over and over again. Little snags pricked my concentration until I took a break to consider them and jot a note for later. Rinse, wash, repeat.  End result: while generally I adore the sort of book Novik wrote (a dangerous fairy tale), there were bits of it that did not work for me at all. To be fair, there were also bits that were quite special. My abiding love for fantasy was enough to pull me through the book, but not enough in the end to inspire devotion.

uprooted by naomi novik cover
“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.

Note: There will be (extensive) spoilers

Agnieszka lives in a valley near a dangerous Wood, where the Dragon, a magician-lord, takes a local girl away to live in his tower with him every ten years.  All her life Agnieszka has known that she’ll have to face a “choosing,” but everyone expects the Dragon to take her best friend Kasia.  Agnieszka herself is an unambitious girl, always running ragged in and out of the less dangerous parts of the forest, so no one is more surprised than she when she is taken by the Dragon instead.  Thus begins the adventure, because nothing (and no one) in the tale is exactly what they seem.

This review was a bear to write, and it departs a bit from my usual, somewhat detached style.  Hold tight, folks!  I’ll go over what made the book hard to read, and issues stemming from that first, and then I’ll go into what I liked (I promise there’s quite a bit – there IS a reason I finished it!).

Difficult item #1: Much of the early action and character-building in this book centers on rape. Agnieszka and her community fear that that is what happens to girls in the Dragon's tower. It's what the royal court assumes is happening. It almost happens in chapter three. It's just so omnipresent – I couldn’t help but wonder what purpose it served – was it going to be likened to some sort of magical violence? Traced to some cultural or historical precedent? Would Agnieszka’s fear trigger some sort of important revelation?  Just: why?  I was honestly confused by it, especially when Agnieszka seemingly (suddenly) dropped all fear of rape 1/3 of the way through the book, despite the addition of even more characters who could have conceivably hurt her. Even the thought of death or being unwillingly and painfully taught magic isn't something Agnieszka focuses on (or indeed the story dwells on) as much as rape. Then to add to that, the Dragon sees attempted rape only as an insult to himself (see a$$hole, definition of).

That brings me to item #2: Interactions between the Dragon and Agnieszka.  The Dragon didn’t ever become less of a d!ck.  That made their relationship (if you want to call it that) one of the strangest I’ve ever read about.  There was not even a straightforward we-hate-each-other-but-really-it’s-love thing going on – it seemed more like a I-think-you’re-a-horrid-excuse-for-a-human-being-but-oh-wait-magic-now-you’re-attractive transformation.  Mind: boggled.  Agnieszka's attitude and motivation changed. She became more complex (transformation from an unsuspicious peasant to a somewhat-more-canny-but-still-deeply-sincere witch). The Dragon?  He achieved a soupçon of flexibility.  He learned to respect an equal as an equal, finally. Well: whatever. It didn't make or break the book for me, and I suppose that's the best you can hope for if a supposedly passionate relationship leaves you feeling distinctly cool.

Item #3 is strictly a nit with how the dialogue was written.  Agnieszka would think a long, drawn out and complex thought (or what the textual clues were telling me was a thought?!), and other characters would answer her in dialogue as if she'd spoken aloud. I couldn't find any trace that the Dragon or others were telepathically reading her mind, so it was just: why. It was odd and it pulled me out of the story.

Final item (#4): Gray characters like Prince Marek and the Falcon who were supposed to be relatable in some way were… not. As best I could tell, I was supposed to have sympathy for those two because they either had great talent or were loyal to one person.  I personally couldn't find anything in them to respect/understand or ultimately pardon.  Ultimately, I didn’t think any of the male characters in the book were relatable.  Which: okay, but strange, since I could see that Agnieszka herself thought they were.

Now, on to the things I liked!  Kasia: a true best friend, with complex feelings and motivations of her own. Novik played with tropes of best friends and I really loved that she turned the “saving the damsel in distress” cliché on its head and elevated female friendship throughout the story. Kasia’s strength (if you want to call it that) was being changed in fundamental nature but not letting it change her spirit. Agnieszka’s was in growing and learning to see a new future and a new relationship with that person.  I want Kasia’s story next.

The story’s first real hook for me was when Agnieszka experienced the terror of the Wood for herself. Until then the evil was abstract, though of course monsters had already been spotted and defeated. It took almost a quarter of the book to get there. I don't know that I would be that patient for any other genre, or for a book less highly-regarded.  The action picked up quite a lot 2/3 of the way through. Up to that point I was in a holding pattern of pick it up, put it down. Pick it up again. It is traditional storytelling, there was a vague sense of foreboding, but the hook came late (unless fear of rape as a catalyst worked for you where it didn't for me).

Another plus: the villain of the piece (the Wood).  What can I say?  I liked it.  Novik does believable malevolence, violence, and genuinely terrible consequences for evil incredibly well.  Speaking of the Wood, I really adored the sense of place that Novik developed in Agnieszka’s home valley.  Yes, it was a backwater, and yes, it was dangerous, but all of the people are held to it.  The world-building was on point.

In all, I’d say Uprooted is a book that treads the middle ground between Emily Croy Barker's The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic and Robin McKinley or Patricia McKillip's YA-crossover fantasy. I very much enjoyed that it was a standalone, and I saw flashes of brilliance, but in the end I came away a bit too troubled to call it a favorite.

Recommended for: fans of adult fairy tales and fantasy, those who crave dynamic female characters, and anyone who liked Peter Dickinson's The Ropemaker.


Liviania said...

I must agree that the Dragon and much to do with him was a weakness. But I just loved Agnieszka and Kasia and the strange evil of the wood.

missprint said...

Thank you so much for this review. I had been considering this one based on the hype and generally good reviews. But seeing your thoughts, I'm more than comfortable in letting this one go. I am especially sad to hear that rape was a driving force for a lot of the story. Not cool.

Jenny @ Reading the End said...

It so DID have the feel of a Robin McKinley book. I think I was a little more forgiving of its flaws than you because it reminded me both of Robin McKinley and of Howl's Moving Castle, and those are two things I cherish with all my heart.

And I did like it that Marek and the Falcon were, in some ways, awful people, but that they had other qualities besides just awfulness. I liked it because we also get to see -- in the scene where she's trying to get Kasia back -- that Agnieszka, who is a good person, has qualities that are not good. I liked having that balance.

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