Recent Reading: UPROOTED by Naomi Novik



What this book is: really, really good. Outstanding. Is it being presented as YA? It could be read as YA or adult. Nieshka’s arc is a YA character arc, but this is a complex story with plenty of depth. It’s definitely going to appeal to readers of all ages.

What this book is not: a Beauty and the Beast retelling. Oh, it has echoes of Beauty and the Beast, especially at first. Also, there is a rose. But UPROOTED departs significantly from the fairy tale. It really cannot be called a retelling. Let’s say it’s in the same family as Beauty and the Beast.

What this book is: by Naomi Novik.

What this book is not: even faintly reminiscent of the Temeraire series. You know, when I read TEMERAIRE, I said to myself, “Just look at all these semicolons! Novik’s overdone it. She’s really captured Jane Austen-style language generally, but Austen definitely did not use a zillion semicolons per paragraph like this.” Then I went and opened up some book or other by Austen and you know what? Yes, she did.

What I mean to say is, Naomi Novik honestly did capture Austen-style language in the Temeraire series. And since before UPROOTED, she’d written nothing but that series, it was impossible to tell what her natural writing style might be like. Well, I guess she might switch and switch again, who knows, but UPROOTED is written in a style that reminds me a lot of Robin McKinley. If it had McKinley’s name on the cover, I’d have believed it was hers. It’s a smooth, straightforward writing style that doesn’t call attention to itself. It’s the kind of writing that gets out of the way and lets you fall right into the story. It starts like this:

Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.

What this book is: a dark fairy tale.

What this book is not: a pastoral fantasy, in the sense that Sherwood Smith used the term in her recent post at Book View Café. Oh, there is an enchanted wood. There sure is. And it is certainly very powerful. But it is the most malevolent enchanted wood you can possibly imagine. It is so malignant that anybody who sets foot in its shade and takes a breath of its air is likely to be inextricably corrupted and try to kill everyone. That scene where the village cows get corrupted and turn evil? Yeah, sounds funny, but actually no, it is seriously horrific. I definitely see why some reviewers are setting UPROOTED in the horror category. I wouldn’t go that far, quite, but as far as I’m concerned, despite the otherwise bucolic village setting and the ordinary forest through which it’s safe to ramble, this story is shoved firmly out of the Pastoral Fantasy category by its horror aspects.

What this book is: compulsively readable, with wonderful characterization and wonderful writing.

What this book is not: flawless. I truly appreciate a story with a theme of redemption. There’s almost no other theme that appeals to me more. But the Wood was SO malevolent in this story that I had trouble believing in the ending. I’m curious: if you’ve read this book, what did you think of the ending? In very general terms, please: no actual spoilers.

What I liked best about this book: practically everything. Specifically: the relationship between Nieshka and Kasia. The relationship between Nieshka and The Dragon. The way the relationship between Nieshka and her mother was handled, and the way the relationship between Kasia and her mother was handled. How Kasia grew and, uh, changed through the story. That bit where Nieshka first called down lightning, that was totally awesome.

What I did not think quuuiiite worked: this setting was supposed to be Eastern European-ish, but in fact it was a thoroughly generic fantasy setting (*extremely* well done, but generic). I guess the names were sort of Eastern European-ish, but they did not really strike me that way. Every time Nieshka cooked buckwheat or ate a blini or whatever, I was just a little bit startled. Maybe this was just me, but one writer who I think manages to pull off this kind of setting just a little better is Merrie Haskell. To me, her settings feel just a little more grounded in historical settings.

Also, the Dragon can clearly read minds. Why did nobody ever seem to notice this? Maybe they all just took it for granted that naturally the Dragon could read minds and so nobody ever saw any need to comment?

Rating: Five out of five. Nine and a half out of ten.

Probability that I’ll re-read this: 100%, probably as soon as next year.

Chance that I’ll send a copy to someone just cause I must share the love: I already have. I did that before I had quite finished the book myself.

Chance that I’ll nominate this for awards next year: Very, very likely, and it’s got enough buzz that I think it has a good chance of picking up a lot of nominations.

Chance that I’ll keep an eye out for Naomi Novik’s next book: Are you kidding? Absolutely.

What I want Novik to write next: something SF. I think it would be fun to see what she’d do with a space opera type of story. Or something with a hard-boiled noir tone. It’s fascinating to me to see her write in such madly disparate styles, so it would be neat if she’d try that again.

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4 thoughts on “Recent Reading: UPROOTED by Naomi Novik”

  1. First: YAY, I’m glad you liked it! This is one of those books that I almost hesitate to recommend for fear that the recommendee won’t like it and I’ll think less of them. (Not really. But kind of.)

    In general, I agree with your points. I did buy the ending, but also I could tell that it was because I wanted to.

    Personally, I did buy the Eastern European setting–it’s specifically supposed to be Polish-based, and the sense of threat from the larger country (ie Russia) read as very realistic. There’s also a kind of pattern to it that reminded me of fairy tales from that part of the world, but I’m having trouble articulating exactly what. Girl goes into a dark forest as in Vasilisa?

  2. Yes, that’s how I felt when the person *I* sent UPROOTED to loved it. I was like: YOU BETTER LOVE THIS OR ELSE.

    I could not tell you why I kept sort of being surprised by the Eastern European thing, but so it was. I just sort of kept going: Baba Yaga? Is that out of place here? Oh, right, this is supposed to be Eastern Europe. So somehow for me I kept slipping out of the intended setting just a bit. It’s not like this ruined the book for me — not even slightly! — but it was slightly jarring all the way through.

    I too accepted the ending because I *wanted* it to work that way, but I didn’t really buy into it.

    Beautiful book, though. I was glad the trip to Arkansas gave me an excuse to read it — and *really* glad I wasn’t the one driving so that I could read on the way.

  3. I’m still waiting for my copy of UPROOTED (my bookseller is slow). I can’t wait to get my hands on it!

    I’m not surprised that the writing style is so different to the TEMERAIRE series. I’ve been reading Novik’s short fiction for a while, so I’ve seen her write in a variety of different styles. The quality of her short fiction is the reason I’ve been waiting so eagerly for a novel set outside the TEMERAIRE world.

  4. I had a similar reaction to the ending, Rachel. After mulling it over for a while, I think I would have been better satisfied if the source of the Wood’s power had been revealed a bit earlier, maybe not fully, but at least foreshadowed, perhaps by folklore. Instead I felt that the revelation and explanation and redemption all happened very fast. But that’s just quibbling when the book overall was so good. The descriptions of magic-working were some of the loveliest I’ve read in a long time. Will I read it again? Maybe – but next time I’ll know which parts to skip. The horror was very horrific….

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