UPROOTED – Naomi Novik (2015)

Uprooted 2Uprooted caused quite a stir when it was published: it was nominated for 6 awards, and it won 4. I’m aware that awards have less and less to do with artistic quality and more and more with the industry of publishing, but still, I was intrigued, especially after I realized fairytales still have lots of potential: C.S.E. Cooney’s powerful short story collection was one of my best reads last year.

Novik apparently was inspired by Polish fairytales – her mother is Polish, her father Lithuanian – but I’m not sure to what extent. Fairytales are fairly universal – there were versions of Sleeping Beauty in ancient China too. The Wikipedia entry on Uprooted seems knowledgeable, and if it’s more or less complete, it seems the Slavic influence is surface level only: names and the sounds of names. That seems enough for a crowd that craves authenticity and deep roots.

Anyhow, Polish or not, the subject matter is straightforward and recognizable: nondescript village girl turns out to be hero extraordinary with the help of an elder mentor. The apprentice quickly outclasses the teacher, and together they take on the evil forces – an evil forest.

While Tolkien’s forest-as-a-character already had ecological overtones, ecology as a theme is surprisingly absent from Uprooted – eco-warriors should look elsewhere for their fiction fix.

The first two thirds of the novel are a joy. Novik’s pacing is great: this novel turns and twists rather unpredictably. The prose is clear and goes down easily. The atmosphere holds great promise. It’s not nearly as dark as Cooney, and it could have been easily marketed as YA too, but that doesn’t matter, as Novik manages to tap into the delight stories like this provide, and makes it look easy.

That’s not to say there are no signs of trouble early on. Especially the philosophical foundation of this book is rather thin. Agnieszka’s magic differs in quality and method from the Dragon’s. All things considered, we are served a superficial, binary story about intuition vs. science. Granted, Novik admits both are needed, but the intuition method is portrayed as stronger and ultimately more ‘true’, better aligned with the Essence of things.

This is annoying and shortsighted for two reasons. For starters: lets see if we can save the planet from climate change using intuition only. More fundamentally annoying is that this is again a fantasy book that creates magic by taking an essentialist position. Plato is not dead yet.

On top of that both methods are gendered: the female intuition vs. the male ratio. While some reviewers have provided trigger warnings for the fact that the Dragon is a jerk at first, the more important gender issue of Uprooted seems to me to be this: that tired old cliché that portrays women as intuitive, in touch with nature, non-rational.

I’m sad to report that Uprooted can’t keep its narrative tension high until the end. As expected, the book’s final chapters are yet another version of the Big Battle. But there’s not a lot of fun to have: the general outcome is predictable, and the details of the finale feel random, rushed, haphazard. Characters’ motivations become unclear – dreamlike, should you be in a forgiving mood. And biggest elephant in the room: it’s repetitive. Really repetitive. Agnieszka & the Dragon cast that same spell again, use that same potion again, and again characters are swallowed by the monstrous evil Forest.

As for plot: what seemed like fresh and original at the start ends as a simple revenge tale.

In short: a lot of wasted potential. Novik took the easy way out. But hey, easy seems to be the winning mode.

Should you read this? If you’ve been following the fantasy scene the last couple of years and have FOMO, you already have. If you’re new to the block and like to diversify your reading with the occasional YA novel: definitely. All others: on the beach, sure – caveats above.


13 responses to “UPROOTED – Naomi Novik (2015)

  1. I picked up Uprooted a few days ago also because of the many nominations for all these awards, expecting to read something amazing and refreshing. Unfortunately, I had to put it down after 60 pages or so, it simply didn’t pull me in. Great review, it really helped me decide that this is something I should pick up again (not soon though) but with different expectations this time around

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank goodness I don’t suffer from fomo. What tough way to live life…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Back when I was still an avid music buyer, I used to be a completionist. I’m glad that phase passed, although there’s still remnants of that attitude, as I have already every unread book of KSR on my TBR…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I loved this but I also agree with you that the last third of it kind of just…unraveled. I remember the final parts being a bit of a drag and would have axed much of the ending to make it cleaner and more comprehensible.

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  4. My only experience with Novik’s writing comes from the first book of her “Temeraire” series, and while I greatly enjoyed that one, I never felt the need or the desire to continue, often asking myself the reason why. You review of this novel might have pointed the finger at that formless lack of interest: the clichés and the… lack of courage (for want of a better definition) to try something new. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

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  5. Uprooted left me quite “meh”, I found it very YA, the relationship between the two characters annoyed me and the story wasn’t particularly original. I don’t really understand the hype surrounding this book, it’s not awful but, for me at least, it’s definitely not a masterpiece.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it’s partly hyped because of the supposedly Polish roots (identity as a theme is getting bigger and bigger in the US speculative scene), and because the first part is quite good, even a bit enthralling with that fairytale feeling that takes us back to the innocence of our childhood. There’s nothing offensive and the blurb seems cool & original (a dragon that is a man) and that pulls people in.

      I have to say the first part of the book had me gripped, smooth, clear, not original but with a fairly fresh feel. Most readers seem to be able to forgive the weak latter part, even if they consciously think it’s weaker, like Mogsy in her comment here.

      I think the competition in 2015 for most of the awards was also weaker, if you look at nomination lists that is.

      The Nebula had Raising Caine (nobody remembers that), The Fifth Season (a book that as hyped but as flawed as Uprooted), Ancillary Mercy (for sure a much better book, but I guess everybody was tired of Leckie winning awards), Grace of Kings (a book whose prose is decidely worse than Uprooted, and overall is too heavyhanded), Barsk (can’t comment on that) and Updraft (more YA).

      All the other competitors of the Holdstock are already forgotten (Guns of War, Half a King, The Iron Ghost, Signal To Noise, Sorcerer to the crown) and seem to fall on the pulp side of fantasy.

      Locus F had again Fifth Season, Karen Memory (haven’t read it but what I’ve read from Elizabeth Bear seems to suggest it has too much of an edge to win a popular vote), House Of Shattered Wings (has even even steeper decline in quality than Uprooted) and Wylding Hall (which is too specific to appeal to a large audience, it combines horror & music).

      I don’t know anything about most of Mythopoeic’s other nominees (The Dark Part of The Forrest, A Thousand Nights and Shadowshaper), which might mean Uprooted is the better book indeed, except for The Buried Giant, which probably should have won. I’m hoping to read that soon, but I guess it is too much “literature” for the bulk of readers.

      The Hugo went to The Fifth Season (it’s the book with the most obvious – if not superficial & incoherent – identity theme, and given the whole Puppy-thing, obviously the one that got the symbolic anti-Puppy votes). Haven’t read the Butcher (I found the first of The Dresden files too pulpy, so haven’t read anything from him since), but I’m thinking Seveneves of Ancillary Mercy should have won – actually the only scifi books on the ballot, and both daring in more than a few ways, and both a LOT more difficult than their Hugo competition.

      I might make a regular post about all this, I’ll think about it some more and see if I can come up with stuff to add.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Really interesting approach. We’ll have to agree to disagree about The Fifth Season and The Grace of Kings,since I really liked those two (even though I much prefer Liu’s shorter works to his longer works) I think both novels really managed to offer something different. For me Aurora and Seveneves were two works (still haven’t read Lecky’s trilogy so I can’t say) that should have been on every 2015 SF shortlists and that ended up quite overlooked, I was very surprised that they didn’t win a Hugo for example. However, the more I think about the Hugo and Nebula, the less I think they’re “for me”. They tend to represent only very popular and pretty mainstream SF (and some of those books ARE good but for me, they don’t always tend to be “the best of” SF&F but that’s another topic entirely.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Very much agreed on Aurora (& Seveneves). Baffling that Aurora was passed, it works on lots of levels, and it has the meta-literature-AI angle.

          I guess it’s politically too left, it’s written by an older white male who is already a household name, so that’s a no-no for most of those fashion of the day liberals.

          Liked by 2 people

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