Sunday, December 6, 2015

Uprooted - Naomi Novik

From what I read online, Uprooted by Naomi Novik is one of the surprises of 2015. She is best known for her historical fantasy series Temeraire. I've read the first six of these and while I enjoyed the earlier volumes, the series lost steam and the sixth was so poor that I didn't bother with the seventh. An eightth volume appeared in 2013. Apparently Novik took a break from the series to write Uprooted. The ninth and concluding book is expected some time next year. A break might have been what Novik needed. Uprooted feels fresh and surprisingly different from her other novels. I can see why so many reviewers are enthusiastic about it.

The valley is governed by a wizard. As rulers go he is a good overlord. He doesn't tax to excess, doesn't require men for his army and helps keep the community safe from the malicious forest that constantly threatens the local populations. There is a price however. Every ten years, he takes a young girl to serve him in his tower. When they are released from service, the girls all say they have been treated well but they have changed in ways that make it impossible to sink back into the valley's community. This year, there will be another choosing and Agnieszka is of the right age. She is not worried, everybody knows the lovely and skilled Kasia will be chosen, but then the wizard surprises them all and selects Agnieszka anyway.

Uprooted is essentially a fairytale. Novik was born in the US and is of Polish and Lithuanian descent. She clearly used the stories of her childhood in this novel. It will take someone more familiar with Slavic folklore to pinpoint the exact stories but the influence is unmistakable. The forest, as in many fairytales, is a dark, dangerous place full of secrets. Stray too far from cultivated land and you are likely to meet a gruesome end. Novik captures the maliciousness of the forest and the evil at its heart very well in the novel. It hangs like a dark cloud over the entire story. A stern warning about the dangers of the wilds.

Novik also made it a coming of age story. Agnieszka is seventeen when we meet her. She is clumsy, not particularly high on self-esteem and very naive about what is going on outside the valley she grew up in. Suddenly cast into a role she isn't prepared for, her early experiences with the wizard are terrifying to say the least. He thinks she is a blithering idiot, she feels he is rude, insensitive and cold. The situation doesn't improve when he finds out she has magical abilities. Used as he is to a rigorously structured form of magic, he seems incapable of helping her control her natural and faintly chaotic talent. It takes them a while to get a constructive relationship going.

Agnieszka is even more challenged when she leaves the valley however. Life in the capital is quite different from what she is used to and in her efforts to find her way around she looses track of what she was sent to do there in the first place. The descriptions of her being fooled, patronized and mocked are painful to read at times, and more than once I wondered why she didn't strangle anyone in her time there. It's a painful way of growing up but she does learn a lot from it. Her development into a woman who can distinguish truth from nonsense, knows right from wrong and has a good feeling for how the valley and the people living in it are linked.

A third part of Agnieszka's development is her relationship with the girl destined to go serve the wizard. Kasia has been more or less raised for the part, and not getting it upsets her life completely. She should resent this but manages to overcome it and maintain a deep friendship with Agnieszka. Novik describes this in a way that starts out understated but works to a dramatic climax towards the end of the novel. We see the entire story through Agnieszka's eyes, it is a first person narrative, but Kasia's character development is not diminished by that in the least.

Where at court the novel moves in the direction of epic fantasy, in the forest it is a full blown fairy tale. The presence inhabiting it is old. It has been there longer than the people and so nobody knows for sure how it came to be or what exactly it is. All they know is that it is evil and manipulative, always pushing to drive the population of the valley out. The forest is the perfect counterpoint to Agnieszka. Where she is sympathetic, down to earth and kind, the forest is horrific, mysterious and malevolent. For most of the novel, Novik manages to suffuse the story with its ever present evil. We get to know it in more detail during the final showdown of course but for most of the story the mystery keeps a certain tension in the story that could otherwise have easily sunk to the level of popcorn fantasy.

Where the Temeraire series mostly gets its inspiration from history, Novik has switched to other sources for Uprooted. The result is a novel that is quite different from her previous work. There is a darkness in this book that is not found in the Temeraire series. Novik's reimagining of Poland from its fairy tales is a great deal more successful than the novels she has produced in the past few years. Like many other reviewers I was pleasantly surprised by it. A fresh start did her a world of good. This novel has made me curious about what Novik will take on after the completion of the Temeraire series. She clearly demonstrates she is capable of different kinds of stories. Uprooted has convinced me to keep an eye out for that future project.

Book Details
Title: Uprooted
Author: Naomi Novik
Publisher: Del Rey
Pages: 438
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-8041-7903-4
First published: 2015

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