Back to the Books and Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Intro

Skip me if you’re just interested in my book review of Uprooted by Naomi Novik.

I’m back to the books as in, the fiction books. I was the kid who spent her weekends burning through an entire book in a day, and daydreaming about that book for the whole next day, or week. Then I did the whole engineering degree thing, and it didn’t feel like I had time for reading anymore. Honestly, I thought I’d lost the part of me that found a good book 10 times better than a good movie. Long story short, that part wasn’t lost, just sleeping, and I can’t believe how long I went without reading (non-engineering textbooks). But I’ll go on a bit more.

At the beginning of 2018, I got myself a library card and picked up a few works by Sheri Tepper. I’d read her book Grass in a sci-fi/fantasy course I managed to take in undergrad, and it had certainly been a more mature work than my previous high school vampire fiction favorites. My tastes have changed a lot since I made those Barbie Twilight parodies. (I’d share the YouTube links, but we’re not there yet.) After Grass, I read The Gate to Women’s Country, which blew my mind yet again. So when I started working in 2018, I went through a bunch more of Tepper’s stuff. The Companions, The Family Tree, The Fresco, Beauty. I had to stop after Beauty.

Reading is important (I say in my sage voice). The Companions made me change how I saw the world. Beauty, though more than difficult to stomach at times, made my heart ache in a way that made me think, did not let me turn away without taking away something deep and gut-wrenching.

I took a sci-fi/fantasy writing course, and read a piece by Anne Lamott encouraging writers to gift their works to someone as motivation to keep going. In the course, we talked about if it had ever felt like a writer had gifted their works to us. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Tepper’s books were like a gift to me. When I learned that she had passed away in 2016, the year after I had read Grass, it felt like I had lost an old friend and hadn’t known about it. Those books mark the time points in my life when I first read them. I remember sitting on the ground in the Tepper section, picking a new one out from the library shelves at random, and unraveling the next masterpiece.

There are still many Tepper books I haven’t read yet. But after Beauty, I moved on to other things, to unfamiliar territory. Sheri Tepper is my favorite author, but I don’t think my own books would be quite like hers. So many new things were written in the eight years it took me to get my degrees! I feel like I’m going to be constantly catching up. The Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden gave me inspiration when I needed it most, and quickly rose to the seat of my favorite novel. I could go on and on.

So I won’t. Melanie, the bff, of the mammaj part of mammaj+rchoochoo, has been receiving long essays via Messenger of my thoughts on my latest book–complaints, ravings, etc. I need a real outlet for the book reviewer in me, so here we are.

Review [Spoilers]: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

I know, I know. This was published in 2015. I’m late to the party. Beware, because I’m about to spoil the whole thing if you haven’t read it yet and want to.

I devoured Uprooted in 5 days during a hectic business trip, which wasn’t the best of timing, but I regret nothing. At 2 AM last night, I had a war with my drooping eyelids about whether I should leave the final 75 pages to tomorrow or just pay for it in the morning when I caught my flight back home. I even opened the book and closed it, deciding I was done for the night, then opened it, then closed it. Well, I ended up doing the smart(ish) thing and wrapped up those last few chapters on the plane.

I’d previously read the short story Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, so her book caught my eye on Amazon when I was searching for something new. Uprooted grabs your attention quickly and keeps up the pace for a long while before slowing down. The book is based very loosely on Russian folklore. The premise is that there is an immortal wizard lord, named The Dragon, who takes a 17 year-old girl from the village every ten years as a sort of tribute, and keeps her locked up in his tower for ten years. When the girl comes out, she is never the same, and always leaves the village and the family she once knew.

This is our first source of conflict, as the main character, Agnieszka, and her best friend, Kasia, are both 17 at the time the Dragon chooses a new girl. There’s a long bit about how everyone knows the Dragon will choose Kasia, because she is the most special and talented etc, but the book goes on about that for long enough that it’s pretty clear it isn’t going to be Kasia. It ends up being Agnieszka, of course. That all happens pretty quickly.

When the Dragon appears for the first time, he’s described as young-looking though his eyes show his old age, which waved the little flag to the reader that signifies him as clearly and definitively the love interest in this book. I nodded, picking up the signal, and waited impatiently for the tension to boil over. It is quite the trope, for a young, inexperienced, stubborn girl to fall for the older (yet somehow still appropriately young-looking), monstrous man. Add the trope of the romantic leads hating each other to start, and you get this novel. I understand why it’s a trope, because I fall for it every time. Still, while Novik pulled it off fairly well, something about it felt wrong.

Novik does a good job of making the Dragon really, truly mean. He’s cold and removed form the world, and thinks little of our heroine Agnieszka. The romance buds in an uncomfortable way reminiscent of Stockholm-syndrome, and I didn’t think the Dragon had redeemed himself very much in the end. It was more that Agnieszka knew him well enough by the end to ignore his constant insults and anger. Other than him being a sexy wizard (because obviously), I didn’t really see the hidden merits underneath. I wished that they had talked to one another more about their relationship (DTR, if you will), to give us some insight into him, and what traits he had that made him worth keeping around. I will say this: Novik paints a CLEAR AS DAY picture of his flaws, and the issues with their relationship. I think it might have been a more realistic choice for Agnieszka to ditch him at the end, even if my trash self would have been upset about that. Novik absolutely delivered for my trash self.

Then of course, there’s the big mystery–why does the Dragon take the girls to begin with? Nope, he doesn’t rape them, thank fuck, but the book certainly doesn’t condone trapping them in a tower for ten years, either. Honestly, the answer to this question fell flat for me, and wasn’t well-explained. It seemed more like the premise was established in concrete before the particulars had been worked out, which was okay, except I’d been eagerly waiting to learn the answer for 80% of the book. By the time it’s revealed, I didn’t really care anymore, and I didn’t understand why it had been kept a secret from Agnieszka for so long.

I was surprised by the book’s final message, in a good way. Novik lays the groundwork early to later unravel a clearer theme, of roots and life’s purpose, circling back to the book’s title. In this world, witches and wizards live forever, their lives eventually becoming meaningless but desired nonetheless. There is an evil Wood that threatens to destroy the whole kingdom. I wished there had been a bit more time for the history, and we only glean bits of it before jumping to our final conclusions, but I got it nonetheless.

There are a few themes in here which ring somewhat environmental. The Wood’s wrath turns out to be a scheme of revenge drawn up centuries ago after humankind mistreated/tried to kill the tree-people of the Wood and their queen. The whole thing has become a vicious cycle, with the Wood and kingdom of Polnya fighting endlessly. The Wood has become sick in its desperation to live, which only hurts humankind more. But the Wood can never be defeated.

It’s interesting, marking the Wood, a forest, as an enemy. It becomes clear that that is very intentional, and that this forest should never have been the enemy. The Wood represents nature, but also human nature and the cycle of life, which humans try to reject. But the war only ends when Agnieszka begins to re-forge the connection between the Wood and her people, to the benefit of all. The solution is not instant, nor should it be, and Agnieszka works to return the Wood to good health. She embraces the Wood as half her home, and anticipates eventually returning her immortality to become part of the Wood someday far in the future.

Much to Agnieszka’s dismay, the Dragon refuses to put down roots/connections to things and people, without which Agnieszka believes there is no point to life. But the Dragon does return in the end, seemingly willing to start growing roots. Which made me happy, I guess, but he was still mean and irritable as ever.

I didn’t think this book was going to be one that threw in a Deeper Meaning at first, but it did, and it was all the better for it. The themes were discovered rather than displayed, and I enjoyed that reveal, at least. On the whole, I really enjoyed this book and the shape of the story, even with the Dragon and Agnieszka’s questionable romantic relationship. I definitely plan on reading another of Novik’s novels sometime soon.

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