Naomi Novik–Uprooted (2015)

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(Cover by David G. Stevenson)

“Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.”

Isn’t that a great first sentence? With 17 words, the book establishes that it’s dealing with classic folklore formulas, that it’s going to subvert those formulas in simple, clever ways, and that it’s self-aware about the role of narrative and legend and all that jazz. It worked on me anyways; I read this sentence in a bookstore and the book stayed on my list for a while until finally this summer presented the opportunity to read it. I’m glad I did!

Especially since everything I just said about the subversion of fairy tale tropes isn’t really the main focus of the novel. It’s all certainly present, but it takes a backseat to good storytelling.

So for example, the book pulls a lot from Slavic folklore (which is another major draw; I love Eastern European folklore and mythology), but it does so without using it as a crutch or a gimmick. A lot of books (especially YA) tends to lay it on a little thick with the cultural influences which makes them feel a little costume-y to me, and distracts from the narrative.

And there are subversions of fairy tale tropes throughout, and the protagonist/narrator is frequently disappointed by the gulf between idealized myth and legend and the actual realities of war and adventure, but this runs through the background of the book, rather than being the main focus.

The point is, Naomi Novik lets her strong storytelling ability and characterization carry the novel, and uses these other elements to add sophistication and style, without letting them overshadow the tale she’s spinning. She strikes exactly the balance I look for and that’s what makes Uprooted successful in my opinion.

Oh! And the magic is done really well; that’s always something to watch out for in fantasy, especially in contemporary fantasy,  where there’s a tendency to over-explain, over-analyze, and over-systemize magic. Novik’s magic feels naturalistic, witchy, and idiosyncratic. Unexplainable. This is what I look for. This is the magic that pervades the history of human storytelling and experience. It’s also a fun characterization tool. When authors overthink the way magic works, it tends to create a disconnect and a distraction, in which we’re asked to focus on the rules or systems of sorcery rather than on the characters, but here it’s the opposite; the role of magic is to support the characters and tell us about their personalities.

All that being said, I have a couple of very specific gripes; I’m going to try to get into them without too much detail, but some spoilers will be necessary, so consider this your official spoiler warning.

First, there’s a little bit of the incompetent protagonist thing, where a lot of the narrative is driven by well-intentioned, but naïve and blatantly stupid decisions. There’s not enough of this to ruin the novel (and arguments could be made that justify it when it does happen) but it was enough to be kind of frustrating at a couple of points.

Second, and more importantly, I felt like the plot could have used some rearranging. There was a beautiful, climactic moment, filled with powerful emotion and catharsis. The problem is that it came way too early, meaning that the high point of the novel arrives before you’re even halfway through. More specifically, the protagonist and the Dragon use a certain spell to rescue someone from the evil power of the Wood, but then they use the same spell over and over again, and it feels a little less powerful every time, so that by the end of the book, everything feels a little flat, and I left wishing that it was about 200 pages shorter. If the book had been rearranged so that climactic moment was at the right place, it would have been more effective.

Overall though, still a very good read. Add it to your list if you like good, adult fantasy with a mythical, natural feel!

And tune in next time for Robert Sheckley’s bizarre and fun “novel” (I use the term loosely) Options.

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