Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Published in 2015; 438 pages; ★★★☆☆

“It comes, I suppose,” I said thoughtfully, speaking to the air, “of spending too much time alone indoors, and forgetting that living things don’t always stay where you put them.”

Summary:
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.

(From Goodreads)

Uprooted is a book that I took forever to read.  When the first synopsis came out, I was ecstatic – Naomi Novik, whose Temeraire series I adore, writing Eastern European fantasy?  That was bound to be spectacular!  And then… I forgot about it.  It was published in May 2015, and some months later I bought it in hardcover, which is rare for me, and then… left it languishing on my shelf.  In January 2016, Foz Meadows wrote this blog post, and as I read it I felt cold.  I started looking around and finding other bad signs, including comparisons to a book that I had loathed for its abusive, child grooming ‘love interest’.  It took me several more months to muster up the determination to read it for myself, and… unsurprisingly, Foz was right.

Uprooted does have its good points, and had I not read criticism before picking up the book, they might have been enough to dazzle me.  The writing and worldbuilding are gorgeous.  Novik brings her setting to life with loving care, making it so magical and yet so real that I’m still not sure if this is meant to be second-world fantasy or not.  (‘Polnya’ is one letter off of ‘Polonya’, or Poland, and ‘Rosya’ is one away from ‘Rosja’, which is Russia in Polish.)  I loved the way the magic worked, too, or rather the ways – differently for city-trained academics than natural hedge witches, so to speak.  The idea that people who grow up around magic develop an intuitive navigation of it is fascinating to me, and these concepts lend themselves beautifully to themes about different kinds of intelligence, and respecting that which is other to oneself.  There were, however, a few instances where the  magic system didn’t seem to be evenly applied, in which Agnieszka used one of the stricter academic-type spells with no hesitation or difficulty; these seemed to happen mostly as the book approached its climax, and I found myself feeling that the magic system as established was modified for plot convenience.

Speaking of plot:  I think it would be fair to say that, all that enjoyment of the magic system aside, the plot was actually the strongest and best-crafted part of the book.  It’s beautifully well paced and flows naturally from its smaller conflicts to its largest in a series of snowballing escalations. Moreover, it’s rich with foreshadowing; looking back from the climax, the groundwork for major decisions is clearly laid in the earliest chapters of the book.  There is a bit of an infodump near the very end, but by and large the book’s resolution is the perfect ‘surprising, but inevitable’ finale.

Where Uprooted faltered, though, was in the relationships between its characters.

There is absolutely no getting around the fact that the two main male characters are both awful, though to varying degrees.  Prince Marek, younger son of the king, is a recurring secondary character… and also the man who attempts to rape Agnieszka early in the book, and who she nearly kills defending herself.  Later, when he returns to the Dragon’s tower, it’s as if that incident never happened.  His assault on her is only mentioned when she or the Dragon are worried about punishment for hurting him – she doesn’t seem to have any misgivings about working alongside the prince, even when it seems she might be alone in doing so.  It left me with a sour taste in my mouth, as if the book had brushed off the attempted rape as casually as the Dragon did.

The Dragon is a flat character.  There’s really no getting around this.  He starts out arrogant, callous, hidebound, and an obnoxiously bad teacher, and he stays that way.  He begins by treating Agnieszka like dirt, and ends with maybe three or four gestures that suggest he doesn’t really mean it as much when he treats her like she’s stupid.  (He still treats her like she’s stupid, though, because of course he does.)  He blames her for Marek assaulting her, blames her for fighting back, constantly derides her for not being good at magic instantaneously, refuses to listen to her thoughts even when she’s proven, repeatedly, that she’s tapping into something he can’t… and after 435 pages, he has changed so little that I just can’t be persuaded he’ll keep changing.

There is, point blank, no narrative purpose for the sexual relationship between Agnieszka and the Dragon, except to add two sexy scenes to the book.  And make no mistake, it is a sexual relationship rather than a romantic one – the Dragon never tries to know, understand, or respect Agnieszka, nor is there any significant build-up of romantic attraction or admiration between them.  There is physical chemistry, but both of the two instances in which it comes out feel abrupt and uncomfortable.  Their first kiss (shortly after Marek’s attempt to rape Agnieszka) is written as if it’s completely beyond their control, and it doesn’t really feel like either of them are consenting to what’s going on.  The actual sex scene was all kinds of unpleasant – even as they’re doing the deed, the Dragon continues to belittle Agnieszka for… being a virgin experiencing her first orgasm, essentially.  It doesn’t feel like a loving act, or even a particularly emotional one at all.  It does feel like two people afraid they’re about to die seeking pleasure while they can, and maybe that was Novik’s intent, but as part of a romantic subplot… it fails utterly.

The thing is that the Dragon didn’t need to be a love interest.  He could easily have been Agnieszka’s platonic mentor, and could have undergone just as much (or as little) character growth.  He could have come to care for her like a daughter or a peer and nothing of the plot would have been lost.  In fact, some things would have made more sense – like the aforementioned part where, for a huge portion of the plot and many of the major twists and escalations, he isn’t even around.  The Dragon’s part, relative to the length of the book as a whole, is far too small to sell him as a romantic lead.

There is, however, a character who was with Agnieszka through almost the entire story, who undergoes almost as much growth as Agnieszka does, and whose relationship with Agnieszka is complex, loving, supportive, strong, and believable.

It’s Kasia, her childhood friend.

The only part of Kasia and Agnieszka’s relationship that I didn’t love was the fact that they weren’t the romantic subplot.  Many of the best moments of the book centered around them, including a scene in which magic forces both women to confront all of the secret jealousies and hurts in their relationship, and then to affirm their love of one another despite that.  It is for Kasia that Agnieszka throws herself into the Wood despite a lifetime of knowing its dangers.  It is to defend Kasia’s life that she ventures into the royal court, flouting all authorities that bar her way.  It’s Kasia who is at Agnieszka’s side through most of the book, supporting her and fighting for the same cause.  And then you get things like this:

I kissed her; she put her arms around me carefully and tightened her embrace little by little, until she was hugging me. I  closed my eyes and held her close, and for a moment we were children again, girls again, under a distant shadow but happy anyway.  Then the sun came down the road and touched us.  We let go and stepped back; she was golden and stern, almost too beautiful to be living, and there was magic in my hands.  I took her face in my hands a moment; we leaned our foreheads together, and then she turned away.

The sound you are hearing in the background is my gay heart breaking for what we could have had.  

Agnieszka herself I found to be a compelling protagonist.  I’ve seen some reviews criticizing her for being a clear ‘Chosen One’, but I don’t think that’s quite justified.  She is special, but there’s no suggestion that this is because of destiny – she just happens to have both the desire and the means to fight expectations placed on her.  Her instinctive sense of magic and understanding of the Wood helps her realize what must be done at the climax of the book, but theoretically anyone else in the valley could have had the same qualities.  What leads her to heroism is a trait commonly attributed to young people:  she doesn’t know what ‘can’t’ be done according to conventional wisdom, and so she does those things anyway.

She’s a spectacularly active character.  In situations where it seems like she shouldn’t have much agency at all (her early days in the Dragon’s tower, or her arrival at the royal court), she claims it; she is constantly doing, or planning what she might do.  Even when physically and magically exhausted, Agnieszka never feels as if she’s been made helpless or stripped of her power.  She doesn’t have to become more masculine, more ‘cultured’, or more book-educated to be able to shape the plot – and neither, for that matter, does Kasia.  There’s something beautiful about the two of them going out into the world and reshaping it, not despite who they are and where they come from, but because of it.

There are a couple of broader patterns I want to discuss briefly, because this book is a good stepping-off point for them:

First of all, the weird and continued fascination people seem to have with young women who are spirited away by magical older men.  I’ve read some stories with this pattern that I enjoyed (Howl’s Moving Castle and The Blue Sword come to mind) and some that I can’t stand (Deathless).  In some stories, this experience leads to the female lead coming into some sort of power of her own; in others, including most popularized ‘Beauty and the Beast’ retellings*, her purpose is to free him.  Depending on the writer, the era, and the structure of the retelling, the heroine may have a considerable degree of agency in her life and be a driving force behind the plot; nonetheless, I find myself getting more than a little tired of the trope.  It’s 2016, and the dynamic of Older Powerful Man and Naive but Spirited Young Woman is getting old.  Next, please!

Second:  there’s this phenomenon across pretty much all forms of storytelling wherein heterosexual romance gets told instead of shown.  I’m not the first one to point this out, as it’s literally the reason most of slash fanfic exists, but it’s worth mentioning in this review because it really is the key problem with Uprooted’s romantic subplot.  Readers are told (through Agnieszka and the Dragon trying to tear each other’s clothes off) that they have feelings for one another, but we are shown so little of how or why these feelings develop, or what they amount to beyond physical attraction.  This falls particularly flat for me because, as an asexual reader, I can’t get my head around the physical attraction part – but even without that obstacle, I can’t help feeling that there’s a part of this relationship I’m supposed to assume, Avril Lavigne style – “He was a hundred year-old man, she was a girl; can I make it any more obvious?”

In the end, I feel like I can rate this no higher and no lower than three stars, to give credit both to the well-crafted plot and milieu and to reflect my deep discomfort with how the characters were handled.  A great many people, including people I know and respect, loved this book wholeheartedly, but I found its flaws just too unsettling to overlook.

 

(*Notably, this may not necessarily be the case for the original version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’, which apparently differs significantly from the variation most commonly retold today.  I haven’t read Villeneuve’s original myself, but from what I can tell it’s significantly more complicated.)
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3 thoughts on “Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

  1. Hang on a second, I don’t think Howl’s Moving Castle fits into the “young women who are spirited away by magical older men” pattern at all – they met because Sophie showed up at his house and was like “I’m your new cleaning lady, get used to it.”

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