So, now that I’ve slept, I can elaborate a little more on what I loved about Uprooted, by Naomi Novik. (This was the book I was squeeing about all last night on FB, in case you missed it, or didn’t catch on). I’ll try to be minimally spoilery.
This book, first of all, is supremely good at using question marks as hooks to pull you through the story, from its very first pages — starting with why the Dragon chooses Agnieszka instead of Kasia. As we learn more about Agnieszka’s magic, we wonder about the nature of that instead. Then, as Agnieszka and the Dragon’s relationship develops, the unresolved tension between them is amazingly good at sparking interest, all the while we’re navigating the other mysteries and obstacles of the main plot.
(I spent a lot of time wanting there to be romance between them, and then feeling bad for wanting that, because clearly Strong Independent Witch Don’t Need No Man — especially not a surly wizard who locks young women up in towers for ten years at a time — but their relationship developed in a way that took no agency away from Agnieszka).
(I also wasn’t entirely sure the central romance wasn’t going to be between Agnieszka and Kasia, since they were so tender to each other throughout the whole book).
There are some incidental similarities with Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha books (immortal wizards, a sinister natural force dividing a country, fantasy!Slavic), so much so that I was half expecting a nasty twist halfway through the book. I also wasn’t entirely certain some major character wasn’t going to die and break my heart. While this book was heart-rending, and there was sacrifice, it still stayed mostly in the realm of bittersweet.
I loved the Wood as this looming source of malice that slowly takes on more and more importance throughout the story. At the beginning, Agnieszka is so caught up with the Choosing that she just incidentally mentions that oh, hey, the Wood kind of reaches out and devours people occasionally. She takes it for granted as part of the setting, and we do, too, until its malice becomes more personal, and it becomes the prepossessing antagonist of the book.
There were many points in reading this book that I was crying — not out of sadness, which books sometimes also wring out of me, but from so much beauty, so many deepy-felt vicarious emotions. The end in particular, in its hopefulness but also bittersweetness.
The themes are close to the surface, and heartfelt. It’s about the roots that a place leaves in us, for good or for ill — usually both, and how they are entangled. About how place has a memory. There are so many points in the story where the bad can’t be removed without taking the good with it — the corruption of the Wood can’t be cleansed without destroying something. The girls spending their ten years in the tower with the Dragon lose any hold the Wood might have on them, but they also lose any connection to a place they once called home. The epitome of this, for me, was how Agnieszka solves the final problem of the book, and how the Dragon’s sacrifice allows her to do that (vague to avoid spoilers).
The book is also about art. The wizards and witches of Polnya live greatly-lengthened lifespans, thanks to their magic, and it distances them from other people, even their own family. They observe life, they preserve life, without really drinking of it. Agnieszka tries to change this — in a sense, her sort of magic is all about life — but we get the sense she’s only partially successful; the people of the Valley are still wary of her, at the end. I think all artists resonate with this sort of half-life, this idea that their work will live longer and be better loved than they are — if they are lucky.
I also really love how Agnieszka and the Dragon’s magic complement each other, earth and water versus fire and air; organization and structure and replicatable results, beside instinct and feeling. Again, it feels like it’s talking about art to me — Agnieszka is completely exhausted by (and seemingly not very skilled at) magic until she learns how to do it in a way that makes sense to her. This feels to me like a comment on how each artist has to find their path, a way to speak their truth, which may look nothing like anyone else’s.
Also, did anyone notice — a subtle thing — how after the two of the did any working together, they seemed to be reading each other’s thoughts? Like Agnieszka would think something, and the Dragon would reply to her, with the thought unspoken? It’s never commented on, but it’s brilliantly done.
I… didn’t love the narrator for the audiobook, Julia Emelin. She has an Eastern European accent, which is actually great for the voice of Agnieszka, a character based loosely on Polish fairy tales, but her delivery is so inconsistent. Sometimes it’s just painfully wooden, lurching from one phrase to another. In particular I’d REALLY wish she’d voiced the Dragon better. (Maybe I was hoping for Lauren Fortgang’s sexy Darkling voice from the Grisha books. I ended up imagining the Dragon having a voice like the male lead from a high school romance anime. Which is not a terrible thing, since he’s basically the King of Tsundere). I ended up giving up on the audio around chapter 15, when I finished my commute home for the weekend — and then went and bought the ebook when the Hugo voter packet version abruptly stopped around the same point.
It was a good choice — I’m glad I ended up reading the smutty smutty bits rather than try to listen to Emelin narrate a sex scene.
And yeah, there’s… like two sexy scenes. So I didn’t mean to make it sound like this is some magical pornucopia, but they were emotionally moving as well as being hot, so they stuck in my head.
Overall, this is likely to be my Hugo novel pick!
I do love this new trend of fantasy that’s hopeful — The Goblin Emperor was, I felt, in much the same vein. Optimistic about humanity, but not short-sighted about its flaws. I would much rather have this than dudebros intriguing politically.
I went to sleep VERY LATE last night, and wished, hoped, prayed to my moon gnosis, Maya, that I could cast the same sort of illusions with words that are cast here. To make people feel as I have been made to feel. To make stories that matter.