This past weekend was Readercon
, where, for the first time, I only went for one day, a decision I regret and will not be repeating. (I have been unusually bad at scheduling and time management in 2017, for some reason, so I keep missing stuff I actually want to do.) Anyway, one of the guests of honor was Naomi Novik
, the author of Uprooted
, which I've been meaning to read for at least a year. After having some logistical difficulties trying to form or execute a workable plan for myself to buy a copy of the book and get it signed, I wound up borrowing Gillian's freshly signed copy off her, and promising I'd actually read it and give it back in a reasonable amount of time (unlike the copy of Kelly Link
's Get In Trouble
that's been sitting on the TBR Shelf of Doom for ::mumblemumblecough::).
I accomplished the reading bit in record time for a borrowed book, starting it first thing Sunday morning and finishing it just before dinner, because Sundays in the summer are for lounging around reading entire books in one sitting. Uprooted
follows in two of my favorite longtime fantasy traditions, which are "books based on fairy/folk tales" and "books about teenage girls with magic powers." Mostly it draws on Polish fairy tale traditions that I'm not super familiar with (for example, I did not catch that the witch Jaga was Baba Yaga until she was actually referred to as "Baba Jaga"—but I do know who Baba Yaga is). The premise of the book refers clearly to the well-known fairy tale trope of dragons capturing or demanding princesses and/or village maidens—a trope I've enjoying seeing upended since Patricia Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles
, and that I think more authors should do stuff with—although it becomes pretty clear the second it is explained that the Dragon here is actually a wizard that we're looking at more of a Beauty and the Beast
type of situation. Beauty and the Beast
, obviously, is a not entirely unproblematic sort of situation to be in, and Uprooted
features a bunch of tropes that are sort of problematic if you think about them seriously, or that some readers might be tired of, but they were also the sorts of things that I was expecting and I think they were handled about as well as they could be without turning it into too serious of a novel. There is the usual Mr. Darcy problem that someone who is a gigantic asshole but really is nicer or better in some way underneath, or otherwise is an asshole for a reason, is still an asshole, because being terrible to people is bad. Agniezka, our heroine, does at points confront the Dragon about the ethics of terrorizing the village by taking one of its girls every ten years, even if he doesn't do anything bad to them; there is, of course, no way to actually make it not terrible that he's been scaring the shit out of his entire constituency for a century. He's also an awful, awful teacher at the beginning, well into being abusively so, especially when there's no communication about what it is that he's actually teaching. While we're at it, feudal monarchy is a terrible form of government.
Also, this is one of those books where the main character is special, and while she's not good at everything, the one thing she is really good at she is the best
at. You are either in the mood for this sort of story or you should go read something else. I like this sort of story when it's executed well; this one, because of the nature of Agniezka's magic, has some parallels to Tamora Pierce
series, which was one of my favorites when I was wee.
The initially really harsh mentor is a fairly common fantasy trope that probably is bad praxis for anyone trying to become a teacher, and the "has important knowledge but is hilariously bad at actually teaching" trope is a less common one but a situation that I always find sort of hilarious (although the prize for this goes to Alabaster from N.K. Jemisin
's Broken Earth
series, if only for the bit where Essun has to teach the basics of teaching to him before he can teach her the magic stuff). The inevitable romance between the Dragon and Agniezka actually only ends up happening once they figure out how to work their two very different types of magic together, and as a result, even though the Dragon spends most of the book being almost Edward Cullen-level intolerable as a person, the resulting romance, born as it is out of highly charged drift-compatible magic workings, ended up being more compelling to me than most other Obligatory Romantic Subplots. (Magic is sexy, OK?)
The villain in the book is the Wood, which is, as one would guess from the name, an evil forest that periodically sends out all sorts of horrors to carry people off and infect cows with some sort of grotesque hell-demon disease and make people go mad. The term used throughout the book for the malevolent essence of the Wood that gets into stuff is referred to just as "corruption," which I like, because it avoids having to use the word "darkness" for what is basically the age-old fantasy convention of having to defeat Darkness as a sort of literal force, like we see in The Dark is Rising
and A Wrinkle in Time
and that one Dead Alewives sketch
where a dude casts Magic Missile at it. So it's the same idea, but corruption
has a sort of dirty rotting biological feel to it rather than grand moral absolutism; a little more like Hexxus in Ferngully
except it doesn't sing and is not played by Tim Curry. Eventually Agniezka does figure out what the Wood is and starts to fix it, but not before a series of events with a numbingly high body count, especially considering that the rest of the book is generally not that dark. In fact, I found the final battle to be perhaps the weakest part of the book, but I admit that writing climactic battles is very tricky to pull off.
The real key relationship in the book, though, isn't between Nieshka and the Dragon, or between the Wood and all the people around it, or between all the various intolerable political factions. It's the relationship between Nieshka and her childhood best friend Kasia, played in my brain by the late Russian model Ruslana Korshunova
. Kasia was the one everyone assumed the Dragon would pick, because she was beautiful and clever and brave and kind and basically perfect, whereas Nieshka was basically a slatternly mess who was really good at gleaning mushrooms and berries and stuff in the woods, but nobody noticed because Kasia was around. Ruslana Korshunova, the "Russian Rapunzel." RIP.
Kasia and Nieshka's friendship apparently cannot be ended by anything, whether it is the lifelong knowledge that Kasia will be taken away, or any of the strange things that happen to her after Nieshka is taken instead. Their friendship endures a lot of separation and some embarrassingly soul-baring magic as they both slowly transform into increasingly bizarre and powerful creatures, Nieshka essentially being the second coming of Baba Jaga, and Kasia turning into some sort of preternaturally strong tree warrior. I want a sequel of Kasia's adventures kicking ass and taking names and being a warrior-dryad. The I want an animated movie of it.
Overall, this is a very delightful book that was exactly the sort of thing I find restorative and comforting to read, provided you don't overthink it, and it makes me wish I knew more Polish fairy tales.