Books

Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Yes, it’s a book about magical happenings in a deep, dark wood. Yes, it includes a struggle between high and low magic. And yes, let’s be honest, the cover art is pretty lame. But, somehow, Uprooted manages to take familiar pieces and make a fantasy story that feels entirely fresh. I picked up this book as a little light reading, but it became one of my favorites of 2016.

The novel opens with Agneiska, an ungainly seventeen-year-old whose village happens to fall under the lordship of the Dragon. A powerful court magician rather than a fire-breathing beast, The Dragon still lives alone in a tall tower surrounded by riches and magic, as any proper dragon should. He also demands a sacrifice: once every ten years, he chooses a girl from his lands to be his live-in servant and companion. The girls come back to the village after ten years unharmed, but changed. They never want to stay.

Along with her whole village, Agnieska fully expects her beautiful and talented friend Kasia to be chosen, but is shocked to find herself selected instead. As it turns out, Agnieska has the gift of magic, and the Dragon is obligated to teach her. Together, the two fight the encroaching Wood, a malevolent, darkly magical forest on the edge of the Dragon’s lands that’s alive with grotesque creatures, a dark secret, and a centuries-long grudge. With a hearty dose of eastern European folklore as a backbone, the world of Uprooted is rich and surprisingly affecting; by turns beautiful and genuinely disturbing, it will stick with you for a lot longer than you’d expect.

A plot summary never does this book justice, because any other author would probably have split this single novel into a series. What I summarized is maybe the beginning third of the novel. Maybe. It doesn’t even touch the creepy, possession-like disease of corruption, the backroom machinations in the royal court, the earthy instinctiveness of Agnieska’s magic butting against the Dragon’s control and precision, or the truly moving female friendship between Agnieska and Kasia that is so rare in this genre.

Uprooted covers enough ground to easily have been turned into the next big fantasy series, yet the novel never feels rushed or forced. This is one of the many reasons I’m such a faithful fan of this novel, but it can’t fully capture what makes Uprooted so compelling

Maybe the best way to explain it is through the book’s author, Naomi Novik. An engineer, video game programmer, and writer, Novik uses her experience in designing tight systems and multi-faceted, interactive stories to create a world that feel so complex that you can almost reach out and touch it. ¬†For reference, her only other published works, the Temeraire series, imagine what the cultural and political landscape of the Napoleonic era would have been like with more dragons. It is as wild yet invested in minutely researched detail as you might think. And, surprisingly, it works.

I think what draws me most to Novik’s work is this specific combination of fantasy and history. Her goal is not primarily to have fun writing about magic and wizards with some historical set dressing as a gimmick, but instead to use fiction as a means for interrogating and addressing reality. Novik often says that she doesn’t find history and fantasy incompatible. Instead, she says, using a fantasy framework is a great way to ask questions of history, to think through political and social structures in a way not possible with conventional storylines: “You can actually muck with history and think about: What if? Why not? What if there were dragons in the Incan empire that allowed them to resist colonization? What if there were a massive dragon empire in the middle of the interior of southern Africa that decided to take objection to the slave trade?”

Indeed, what could have happened if some world power had put a stop to these institutions before they could take root in people’s hearts and minds? What would that world even look like? Fantasy of the highest order, to be sure, but with a higher purpose.

To me, Uprooted works on many of the same principles as the Temeraire series. Novik’s imaginary warring countries of Rosya and Polnya in Uprooted draw more than a little from Polish folktales and history, of which her mother fed her a steady diet as a child. A second-generation immigrant, Novik also grew up hearing about her grandmother, executed as part of the WWII Polish resistance. She grew up seeing the effects of her mother’s defection from Communist Poland and exile from her family.

In a way, Uprooted tackles some of those feelings of disconnection from heritage, of her mother’s childhood memories of Poland made bittersweet in the reflection of diaspora and loss of identity. As Novik describes the wood at the edge of her heroine’s town: “It’s a place that should be nurturing, that should be positive and beautiful and have wild magic to it. And it has all been twisted inward by rage, by hatred and by the severing of connections.”

Novik’s novel sets about healing Agnieska’s twisted woods, reconnecting the damaged parties–each both offended and offending–through a slow, steady process of healing. Tellingly, her young protagonist’s power to heal comes through self-acceptance, compassion, and a willingness to see from someone else’s point of view. It seems like Novik is pleading that perhaps our own political, historical, and cultural divisions could be healed with a similar approach. Perhaps her mother’s Poland doesn’t have to be shadowed in nostalgia and nightmares–perhaps there’s a way to reconcile.

In another author’s hands, this could become a MESSAGE, in all caps with flashing neon lights. But, thanks to Novik, the suggestion is gentle, almost invisible, rather than forced or overt. It sits below the surface, an unseen, benevolent river running underneath the novel, watering its roots.

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