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.

Michael Ende–The Neverending Story (1979, transl. Ralph Manheim 1983)

What a book! I wish I had started with this one. Or ended. Either way, as an actual book quest, it’s so conceptually appropriate for this blog, and it’s so! dang! good! So good, y’all. Children’s fantasy is the pinnacle of genres; the best children’s fantasy will always be better than the best of anything else (and arguably, even, more culturally significant) as far as I’m concerned. And this is, for the most part, a really good example of what good children’s fantasy looks like. I spent a few days happily lost in this book, and it quickly jumped to the top of my favorites list.

A brief synopsis; it’s a book about itself! To be more specific, a pudgy, awkward kid named Bastian Balthazar stumbles into a bookstore and feels a strange attraction to a leather bound book called The Neverending Story. The first half of the book tells the story within the book, and at the same time as it describes (briefly and occasionally, so that it’s not annoying) Bastian’s experience reading the book. Not surprisingly, those lines between the fiction and Bastian’s experience start to get fuzzy, and at the midpoint, he’s magically drawn into the book as the hero who can save Fantastica. Naturally, there are a lot of fun, mind-bending paradoxes associated with this.

The story within the story is a straightforward, perfectly executed fantasy hero’s journey, with all of the bizarre and beautiful characters, monsters, and locales that are classic to a certain brand of children’s book (Alice in Wonderland, The Phantom Tollbooth, Haroun and the Sea of Stories). The story is self-conscious in a nice straightforward way, it’s not showy or in your face about it’s metafiction, and the lines of thought it invites you on are really fascinating. Ende explores what makes a good fantasy narrative, and how crucial fantasy is to civilization. It bears comparing to my favorite book ever The Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones; that book also explores fantasy, but it does so more satirically, lovingly mocking authors who rely on played-out post-Tolkien tropes. The first half of The Neverending Story is pure celebration, both a great tale and an ode to great tales.

There are no big surprises in the first half of the book, in my opinion. Everything follows pretty naturally from the premise. The little details along the way are much more important than the overall structure in the long run, so I’m not concerned about spoilers there, and I don’t fault the book for being “predictable” because sometimes going the obvious route is the best route; it’s a sign of clearly conceived, classic, and satisfying storytelling. Mystery is a really important ingredient of good narrative, but there are other places to incorporate it than in the plot (more on that in a bit).

For now, I’m going to stop for a sec and say where I thought the book was going to go after the first half: at the midpoint of the book, when Bastian is called to enter the story and save Fantastica, he’s hesitant. Atreyu, the hero of Fantastica, has fulfilled his part of the quest simply by the act of going on the quest; the joy of following such a story in all of its vivid and exciting detail is exactly what it takes to bring someone into Fantastica from the human world. But Bastian is hesitant. He thinks he can’t possibly be a hero, with his pudginess and cowardice and weakness of will. So I thought, ok so he doesn’t just come into the story the easy way, he’s going to have to go on a journey for himself so that he can realize his potential and learn to love himself, and grow into the hero Fantasica needs.

That would have been the obvious narrative, and it would have been nice enough, but what Ende does instead is pure genius. Having spent the first half of the book celebrating and praising fantasy and its importance (in a clever and nuanced way), he spends the second half taking that and complicating the hell out of it. For a while, I wasn’t sure where the story was going or what the stakes were and I was a little uncomfortable and ready to be disappointed or upset, but everything starts to reveal itself gradually. I’m being vague, but I want to leave anyone who reads this with the opportunity to explore the second half of the book for themselves, fully and richly. I’ll say I cried few cathartic tears at the end, and leave it at that.

One last note, one of the most important things in second-world fantasy is building a world that stretches beyond the text, and feels massive, mysterious and incomprehensible. The number one sin a fantasy author can make is overexplaining, trying to nail down politics, magic, or whatever else makes them immediately artificial and prevents them from reflecting a confusing and tricky world, and therefore completely irrelevant. This book has such a fun little trick for making the world seem much larger, and to make the Neverending Story actually neverending; often, when the main plot leaves behind minor characters or object, we get a brief tease of their fate, with just enough detail to make us want to know more, followed by the formula “but that is another story, and shall be told another time…” which is simple and elegant and very effective, in my opinion. Telling these stories would be a fun game to play in a classroom or among fellow story lovers.

Anyways Read This Book Please Thansk