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Book Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Friday, July 15, 2016 - 08:00

I had read a lot of discussions of this book before reading it and I wasn’t sure how that might affect my experience. In the end, not that much, I think. There were some aspects I was over-prepared for, some that I may have noticed more than I would have otherwise, but some of my strongest responses were to things I hadn’t remembered seeing discussed at all.

This is a book with a fairy-tale feeling, but one of those dark, pre-bowdlerization Grimm’s Brothers tales, where the monsters succeed in eating people sometimes, and you’re as likely to find yourself dancing to death in red-hot shoes as you are marrying a prince. The feel of the setting is Eastern Europe, involving two rival nations whose names are easily recognizable as Poland and Russia. Baba Yaga makes a guest appearance in authorial absentia. And the Big Bad is the evil sentient wood, engaged in a constant struggle with the wizards of the kingdom for every contested acre of land. In all of this, a peasant girl is chosen to serve a dragon.

Well, not really a dragon, but a wizard nicknamed The Dragon. And when a peasant girl like Agnieszka is chosen by a dragon, you pretty much know she’s got Chosen One written all over her. Except that it was her best friend Kasia who everyone knew was supposed to be chosen.

The friendship and loyalty between Agnieszka and Kasia was one of the backbones of the story, and I was delighted that Kasia got her own heroine-tale just as much as Agnieszka did. This is, of course, a very traditional fantasy tale, so there is never any suggestion that the two brave and daring young women who are willing to die for each other might, you know, ever be more than friends. Because Agnieszka is marked out for a trope-ridden attraction-of-opposites romance with the man who spends the first third of the book being completely beastly to her for no evident reason except that she offends his sense of esthetics and proper order.

I use the word “beastly” advisedly, because one of the tropes being invoked is Beauty and the Beast (except she isn’t beautiful). Another trope hangs on “men’s magic is logical and orderly and scientific, while women’s magic is chaotic and instinctual and unexpected.” And in the usual way of these tropes, the chaotic, instinctual women’s magic saves the day in the end.

But before we get to that end, we have to suffer through a lot of people trying to solve problems by throwing large quantities of violence at them. It takes entirely too long for anyone to figure out that maybe a sentient wood might have genuine grievances and a valid right to push back against human incursions. The later part of the book includes something like a half-dozen-chapter stretch that describes thousands of people supposedly on the same side of the struggle finding ways to slaughter each other in vast numbers. I just...I don’t come to fantasy novels for battle-porn. I know some people do, but the sequence felt unnecessarily prolonged and simply downright unpleasant. I don't quite understand how any of the participants remain sane, functional human beings afterward.

In the end, the Big Bad is solved by someone being willing to listen and empathize and find a kind solution. A pity it couldn’t happen before all those nice young men died and the kingdom was ripped apart.

Now, all that being said, Uprooted is an exquisitely written book with astounding world-building. But I can't really say I found it a fun book to have read.