Monday, January 4, 2016

Microreview [book]: Uprooted, by Naomi Novik

A standalone fairy tale from Novik which feels both fresh and familiar. You'll be left wanting more.

Uprooted is something of 2015's book-du-jour. It is appearing on any number of Year's Best lists (including my own) and will likely be involved in awards chatter in the coming months. Normally, I would follow this by asking the semi-rhetorical question of "but, is it any good?". The problem is, I've already spoiled my answer to that question. There are far worse problems to have. My answer could have been "no".

Uprooted begins as a simple fairy tale, noting that every ten years a dragon demands tribute from the surrounding villages. The tribute, all of the 17 year old girls from whom the dragon will choose one.

This is not a simple fairy tale. The "dragon", in this case is actually a wizard. He keeps the girls for ten years, but afterwards lets them go, unharmed, after their time is up. While they generally leave their villages and move to one of the cities, their lives are no longer the provincial ones they left.  The chosen this year is Agnieszka, which is a surprise to everyone in the village, but not the reader because we know how these stories go. Agnieszka's friend Kasia was more or less groomed from birth to be the selection. She was almost the most beautiful, graceful, and the bravest. Qualities the dragon almost always picks. Except, he selected Agnieszka. She's the girl with the magic.

The dragon never physically mistreats Agnieszka, but like Bruce Banner, he is angry all of the time and has no patience for her clumsiness, lack of understanding, and lack of ability to magic his way. But the dragon isn't an angry wizard for the sake of being an angry wizard demanding tribute from on high in his tower. The dragon is the one holding back the evil of The Wood, which isn't simply an evil forest, but one that rather has the power and malevolence to infect the surrounding land and gradually expand and swallow up nearby villages. Readers of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time novels will find echoes of The Blight here.

Readers of childhood fairy tales will find so much that is familiar in Uprooted, but Naomi Novik is holding up a twisted mirror to those fairy tales while still holding tightly to the heart of what we so love and remember. Novik may not be completely deconstructing fairy tales here, but she is definitely playing with the form. The sinister dark forest has plants that can not only kill, but gradually creep and infect the surrounding landscape one foot at a time until that town three miles away is no longer a town, but the new edge of The Wood. We've already talked briefly about the dragon that isn't a real dragon, but rather a wizard who really is the last line of defense against The Wood. He isn't in league with the darkness. He stands against it. But he is also a dragon in a sense because he does call fire to burn back The Wood and he does require tribute to keep him fed and stocked with apprentices.

The star, driving force, and shining heart of Uprooted is the character of Agnieszka. The more conventional fairy tale that Novik appears to be telling in the first chapter is not necessarily the one that we get as the novel progresses. Agnieszka appears to be a wilting character, shrinking back from the anger and ubruptness of the dragon. This is not who she becomes. Through her own strength of character and intelligence, Agnieszka begins to grow into the person she never would have dreamed she could or would become. The concept of this Agnieszka would have been as alien and as foreign to her as the reality of life at court. Though still raw and impulsive, the progression of the novel begins to give her the seasoning required to not only help in the fight against The Wood, but also to become the sort of character parents will want to use as an example to their children.

Fairy tales are for kids, right? Uprooted straddles that line. It is both very much a novel that adults can, should, and will appreciate. Adults will recognize many of the things that Novik is doing in tweaking some of the conventions of fairy tales, but will also enjoy the novel simply for what it is. Older kids will enjoy Uprooted for simply being a kick-ass book with an awesome heroine and an exciting story for which they simply must know what happens next.  Naomi Novik has a little bit for everyone in Uprooted.

My son will be one year old in two days, but I'm already looking forward to the day he discovers Agnieszka and Uprooted and if I'm really lucky, excitedly runs into whatever room I happen to be in to tell me about this awesome book that he just read and simply could not put down. I won't tell him that I had much the same reaction to the book when I read it, too. I'll just smile

The Math
Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for having such a strong and relatable heroine, +1 for Novik's handling of standard fairy tale tropes and making them seem both fresh and familiar

Penalties: -1 for the stuff about the trees near the end, you'll see what I mean when you get there.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10 "Very High Quality / Standout in its category". See more about our scoring system here.

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Writer / Editor at Adventures in Reading since 2004, Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2015. Minnesotan.

Reference: Novik, Naomi. Uprooted. [Del Rey, 2015]