Friday, 27 May 2016

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

This was already a big book last year before I ever picked it up. At the time I started it, it was nominated for both a Hugo and a Nebula. When I was about halfway through, it won the Nebula, which caused a friend to observe that I was reading it "before it was cool." However, I read half of it after, so that was only half true. I questioned whether or not that made me Schrodinger's Hipster?

Honestly, it doesn't matter. I really really enjoyed this book, and I'm pretty sure that would true whether or not it was popular. And it certainly was popular before me, given that it has been nominated for all the awards this year. 

I have read three of Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, which I enjoyed but didn't love, finally giving up because I wasn't getting enough out of them. There were good things, but much that didn't hold together. With Uprooted, she'd taken a quantum step forward, using the forms she's working within to structure but not confine the story she wants to tell.  

In the Temeraire books, she was trying so hard to write Napoleonic War naval books with dragons that it often meant that the plot was sidelined in favour of the convention of that small genre of fiction. She did it well, but there was no question that it prevented the books from taking flight.

In this case, she's taking the forms and patterns of fairy tales, but instead of being confined by them, she's set free to weave a truly enchanting, sometimes terrifying story that was wholly satisfying.

I am sure that surprises no one. I've long been public about how much I love books that are based on fairy tales, if they're done well. This is one of my favourites so far, not quite as dear to me as Catherynne Valente's Deathless, but getting closer than I might have thought possible. So really, I'm delighted that she won the Nebula.

Okay, I swear to goodness that I'll get to the plot and specifics about the book soon, but first, one more meandering. Just before the Nebula ceremony, I read an article someone had written for Barnes & Noble about the nominees and who the writer thought would win. Uprooted was dismissed because the reviewer liked it, but thought it was too weird. I was about halfway through the book at that point, and I just stared in bafflement at that phrase. Too weird? In what way?  

Then I finished the book, and my thoughts are unchanged. I mean, what exactly is weird about this book? Narratively, it's very straightforward. The characters live in a fairy tale world, but are clear extrapolations on tropes you find there. There's really nothing drastically experimental about it. There are books out there, some that I dearly love, that are truly weird. This is not one of them.

Too weird? I mean, have you ever read a fairy tale before? 

Because this is a fairy tale above all else. There are elements of Rapunzel, Beauty and the Beast, Hansel and Gretel, as well as just the general feel of a Germanic folk tale. 

The book starts in a small town on the edge of a vast malevolent Woods. It reaches out and takes people, corrupts them and sometimes sends them back. They cannot be cured. On the edge of the wood, a wizard known as the Dragon lives in a tower. Every ten years, he selects a girl from the villages to be his servant for the next ten years (and, it is presumed, his bed warmer.) It is always the girl with the most spirit, the most beautiful and daring, the most like a heroine from an adventure story.

Everyone knows who it's going to be this year. Except that it isn't. It's her rather plainer, much messier friend, Agnieska. Do I want to say why? I don't feel like it's a massive spoiler - he recognizes untapped power in Agnieska, and he dislikes her as a person, but feels the responsibility to teach her how to use it.

Royalty visits, with complications. Agnieska has trouble with the Dragon's style of magic, and discovers her own. Tragedy strikes her village, and Agnieska starts to kick over the traces, to push the Dragon to do something about the Wood.

More than that I don't really want to say. It's a really marvellous unfolding of the story, completely satisfying as Agnieska negotiates magic and malice, politics and passions. The other characters may do things that are infuriating, but Novik is always very clear as to why they are making the choice they are making, even down to aspects that you wouldn't expect.

Also, although romance is by far not the most important part of the book, the romance that does occur I really enjoyed. The reasons keeping them together and apart were convincing, and I was very happy with the way it all played out.

All in all, Novik has created something very special in Uprooted, and I strongly recommend it.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees


  1. I loved this book. It was perfectly crafted and hit all the right notes. Fairy tales are dark and Uprooted captured this. I also agree with you about the Temeraire series. I read about 4 of them and while I enjoyed it and admired the alternate history, something was just missing. Not so with Uprooted.

    1. Yup, absolutely. It's so delightful to see an author get better like this.