Thursday, July 09, 2015

Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

There are thousands of ways I could begin this review of Uprooted by Naomi Novik and many ways in which to present it, but to start it must be simple.

I love this book – it is a wondrous read with a surprise around every page. As I read, I could never get enough – I lost sleep, reading ‘just one more chapter’ five or six times a night. I guessed at what would come next and was always surprised…until I simply stopped and just let the story flow. It’s timeless, evocative and every bit the modern fairy tale others proclaim it to be. It is a must read.

But of course Uprooted isn’t only simple as it’s as deeply layered as the best fairy tales always are. And so must my review be more than a statement or two about how much I love the book.

Voice. It can so often be overlooked in its importance, but particularly for first person, it dominates a story’s ultimate success. For Uprooted this voice is Agnieszka (Nieshka to her friends), a young woman who will find who she is and her place in the world through the growth of Uprooted. She is ignorant to the world yet rooted to her past, devoted to her loved ones, and contains a will strong enough to endure and shatter convention. Uprooted is certainly the fairy tale it’s proclaimed to be, though more so, it’s the story at the root of that timeless tale – the origin and the seed from which a magnificent collection of truths will descend. It is the tale of Nieshka and how she saves her homeland, a kingdom, a wizard, and a friend. And so much more.

One aspect of Uprooted that made it an absolute joy to read is that I began reading it with very few expectations, and the few I did have mostly turned out to be wrong. The jacket description of the book is all over and done with in a just a few pages. Afterwards is a blank slate. First one path forward emerges, then another, then another, and eventually the journey is simply enjoyed.

It took some help for me to see it*, but the ultimate theme guiding Uprooted is friendship. Every single significant moment in this book is rooted in Nieshka’s friendship with Kasia. Yes, there is a beautifully drawn out romance, and there is the ever present corruption of the Wood and the evil it brings, and politics of kingdoms and such as well. But it’s the simple, mundane (yet clearly so much more than mundane) value of friendship that Uprooted grows from.

For this reason (among others), I would propose that Uprooted should be thought of as an ideal ‘entry-level’ fantasy. Typically when that term is thrown about there are spaceships, aliens, battles, or dragons, swords and other battles. Probably an orphan or a soldier, likely magic or faster-than-light travel. But of course that view is from one (particularly loud) tradition, and Uprooted nurtures another tradition.

Fear not, if you feel that your fantasy needs swords and bravery, evil beasts to be defeated, battle and betrayal, you will find this. But let’s move on.

As with the best fairy tales, Uprooted has many layers, and many conversations that can sprout forth. Be it friendship as I indicate above, or the blooming of a love and the opening of a dead heart, or even the mundane conversations of genre.

Yes, for those of us who have delved into the ‘community’ of fandom, there is conversation to be had. In fact, one could choose their own metaphor if they were so inclined. There is the prescriptive, rigid magic of the Dragon, complete with its long history and devote adherents. The precise requirements of diction, pronunciation and the corresponding expectations of courtly sorcerers. Nieshka’s corresponding magic of intuition and song, containing no prescription or predictive path is a foil to whatever establishment you choose. The corruption of the Wood, its pure evil and malice and the resulting lack of hope presents another opportunity for conversation. For all the overwhelming evil and corruptive power, there is redemption. Hope prevails though the indomitable spirit of Nieshka. The conversation is changed and the future rewritten**. And hell, I just know there’s a good ‘can’t see the forest for all the trees’ message wandering the Wood somewhere.

Of course it can be any community that takes a lesson from Uprooted, I merely chose the one closest to me as I write.

As many a review that I write grows from a beginning into a wild bramble of mixed thoughts and metaphor, eventually it comes back to the beginning. And so it ends in the simplicity of earned embellishment.

Uprooted is the seed that spawns a thousand generations of a tale and Novik has cultivated a magnificent, timeless beauty to enjoy***.

* The reasons why are probably several essays worth of material.
**Leaving grimdark for dead in ditch? This reviewer can only hope.
***Over and over again.


James said...

Interesting. I will have to give this a try. Have you read the review from pats fantasy hotlist on this book? It was one of the most scathing reviews I have ever read. Its almost as if you guys read two different books.

Neth said...

Yeah, I saw Pat's reviews. I don't care so much that his opinion was different than mine, but that review was a big pile of sexist shit. It really boiled own to: ewwww....girls.

I'll be the first to admit that Uprooted won't be for everyone, but I think it's a beautiful piece of work and one of the best fantasy books I've read in the last few years.

James said...

Well, I have always admired your opinion so the book is back on my to be read list!


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