Thursday, October 18, 2018

Book Review: 'Uprooted' by Naomi Novik

Review by DrLori (Nom de plume
Recently I read Naomi Novik’s 2016 novel, Uprooted, which is well worth the read, so here goes:
Every ten years the Dragon takes a girl from the Valley.  He doesn’t kill her, or eat her or, the girls insist, seduce or abuse or even touch her.  For ten years, the chosen girl serves him, and then she leaves.  Not only the Dragon’s tower, but the Valley itself.  No one leaves the Valley; no one wants to; no one can conceive of leaving the land where their roots are set so very deep.  But the Dragon girls leave.

The Dragon isn’t a real dragon—he’s a wizard who lives in a stone tower at the head of the Valley.  When villagers venture too close to the Wood and sicken, the Dragon tends them.  The villagers of the Valley serve the Dragon and are grateful to him, but they don’t love him.  He’s distant and cold, and he takes one of their daughters, one every ten years.  “Everyone says you love a Dragon-born girl differently as she gets older; you can’t help it, knowing you so easily might lose her” (p. 5) .
For Agnieszka’s family, fear is lessened, since everyone knows that the Dragon will pick Agnieszka’s dearest friend Kasia to serve him.  Kasia is everything Agnieszka isn’t—she’s beautiful and blonde, brave, graceful, accomplished—she has been groomed from birth to serve the Dragon.   “He wasn’t evil, but he was distant and terrible.  And he was going to take Kasia away, so I hated him, and had hated him for years and years”  (p.10).
Of course, when the Dragon comes to pick a girl, Kasia is not the one he chooses.  Terrified, awkward, Agnieszka finds herself imprisoned in the Dragon’s tower. 
A real dragon might have been a more comfortable companion.  Seventeen year old Agnieszka has no idea what Sarkan, the Dragon, wants of her, but slowly—slowly, she learns, not only what he wants, but what he does in his tower at the end of the Valley, overlooking the Wood that straddles the border with Rosya, complicating Polnya’s uneasy relations with the neighboring kingdom.  He holds back the Wood—or he tries to hold it back.
The Wood is more than just woods.  Malevolent things lurk in the Wood, and people can be affected—corrupted—by a stray wind or a dusting of pollen.  And then there are the walkers, creatures that come out from the woods and carry off villagers.  Most of the taken don’t come back.  A few do. 
They came back out sometimes, corrupted in the worst way: smiling and cheerful, unharmed.  They seemed almost themselves to anyone who didn’t know them well, and you might spend half a day talking with one of them and never realize anything was wrong, until you found yourself taking up a knife and cutting off your own hand, putting out your own eyes, your own tongue, while they kept talking all the while, smiling, horrible.  And then they would take the knife and go inside your house, to your children, while you lay outside blind and choking and helpless even to scream.  If someone we loved was taken by the walkers, the only thing we knew to hope for them was death, and it could only be a hope.  We could never know for certain, until one of them came out and proved they weren’t dead, and then had to be hunted down.  (pp. 100-101)
Sarkan is in the Valley to fight the Wood and its malice as, ever vigilant and restless, it takes villages on both sides of the border between Rosya and Polnya, endangering their fragile peace.  Twenty years ago, the queen of Polnya left her small two children and her husband and disappeared into the Wood with the prince of Rosya.  Neither ever emerged.  Wars followed, followed by uneasy truces and powerful grudges, and always the Wood’s slow inexorable incursion.
When Kasia is taken by the Wood, defying Sarkan, Agnieszka retrieves her, and convinces Sarkan to let her try to cleanse her of the Wood’s corruption.  Her decision to save her best friend sets off a cascade of actions that force Agnieszka and Kasia to leave the Valley for the capital, force them to navigate the competing interests and intrigue both petty and profound in the capital, between jealous wizards and courtly politicians, some of whom want nothing more than to burn Kasia, Prince Marek who wants to recover her mother and will stop at nothing to do it, and the implacable Wood.
Magic permeates the story, and there are profound differences in the kinds of magic.  The Dragon chooses Agnieszka because she’s a born witch.  But his type of magic, with its precise spells and careful enunciation, isn’t natural to her; she’s clumsy and bungles the spells.  By accident she happens on a form of magic that she can do, one that feels to her like picking her way through the woods instead of keeping to a path, and both the Dragon and his fellow wizards don’t understand her ability, even though they can’t deny her power.
He didn’t believe me until he’d made me throw half a dozen of Jaga’s spells.  They were all alike: a few words, a few gestures, a few bits of herbs and things.  No particular piece mattered; there was no strict order to the incantations.  I did see why he called her spells unteachable, because I couldn’t even remember what I did when I cast them, much less explain why I did any one step, but for me they were an inexpressible relief after all the stiff, overcomplicated spells he’d set me.  My first description held true: I felt as though I was picking my way through a bit of forest that I had never seen before, and her words were like another experienced gleaner somewhere ahead of me calling back to say, There are blueberries down on the northern slope, or Good mushrooms by the birches over here, or There’s an easy way through the brambles on the left.  She didn’t care how I got to the blueberries: she only pointed me in the proper direction and let me wander my way over to them, feeling out the ground beneath my feet.
He hated it so very much I almost felt sorry for him.  He finally resorted to standing over me while I cast the final spell, noting down every small thing I did, even the sneeze from breathing in too deep over the cinnamon, and when I was finished he tried it again himself.  It was very strange watching him, like a delayed and flattering mirror: he did everything exactly the way I had done, but more gracefully, with perfect precision, enunciating every syllable I had slurred, but he wasn’t halfway through before I could tell it wasn’t working.  I twitched to interrupt him.  He shot me a furious look, so I gave up and let him finish working himself into a thicket, as I thought of it, and when he was done and nothing whatsoever had happened, I said, “You shouldn’t have said miko there.”
 “You did!” he snapped.
I shrugged helplessly: I didn’t doubt that I had, though to be perfectly honest I didn’t remember.  But it hadn’t been an important thing to remember.  “It was all right when I did it,” I said, “but when you did it, it was wrong.  As though—you were following a trail, but a tree had fallen down in the meantime, or some hedge grew up, and you insisted on continuing on anyway, instead of going around it—”
“There are no hedges!” he roared. (92-93)
Art magic has its own substance and power, as Agnieszka has seen. 
The Dragon rose deliberately from his chair.  The hall darkened around him with sudden, frightening speed, shadows creeping over and swallowing the tall candles, the shining magical lights.  He came down from the dais, each step striking like the deep terrible ring of some great bell, one after another.  (164)
It’s tempting to think that Novik is setting male power against female, since the two main characters epitomize masculine and feminine tensions; Sarkan is imperious, powerful, cutting, while Agnieszka is unlearned, terrified and half a step above a servant (she is, however, more than capable of defending herself, as she beats the stuffins out of a would-be rapist).  Yes, at first blush it looks like Uprooted steps into the War Between Men and Women.  Novik, however, is doing something different, and the ground of conflict lies between earth magic, the power of the midwife, for instance, and art magic, or the power of the trained professional.  Two major practitioners of art magic in the capital are women—Alosha and the Willow—and Agnieszka finds spells conceived by male farmers from the Valley, one to bring rain and call down lightning, which is admittedly a handy ability.  No, the conflict isn’t gendered, it’s locational.  In general, the magic of the Valley is one with nature and affects nature, while art magic springs from different motivations and manifests, well, more artfully.  When they cast together, Sarkan and Agnieszka balance and complement each other, and their spells convey a power that no other wizard can match. 
The question is whether their magic stands any chance against the Wood.  The Wood, Sarkan repeatedly tells Agnieszka, is capable of patience and planning.  It has killed untold numbers of people; it destroyed any trust there was between Polyna and Rosya, it can play a long game, and no one knows either what it wants to accomplish or how to defeat it.
Agnieszka possesses one additional magical ability that no one else seems to have—she can see the creators of the magic at work; in one spell she sees a village witch at work two centuries ago.  And because the Woods are possessed of malevolent magic, she sees their powers in ways that no other wizard sees.
Is the Wood setting a trap, manipulating even Agnieszka’s compassion and love for her friends and neighbors?  The Dragon thinks so.  Agnieszka suspects he’s right, but with Prince Marek determined to save his mother and arrogantly ignoring all danger, and the Falcon, an ambitious rival wizard determined to prove himself the Dragon’s superior, neither has any chance to avert catastrophe…maybe.
Full of Eastern European flavor and folklore, Uprooted offers a clever and brisk approach to magic.  In some ways the novel feels like a fable, but its folk elements are balanced by an earthy realism, and psychologically accurate portrayals of characters that would too easily be considered stock figures: a poor but honest peasant who is consumed by a sense of inadequacy and worthlessness; a petty-minded genteel courtier class more concerned with appearance than substance; a king with two ambitious sons, a desire to remarry, and powerful anxiety about his country; a vain and jealous wizard; a son who only wants to save his mom.  In another deft twist on the fable, there’s a marked scarcity of real villains; viewed through the lens of Agnieszka’s compassion, even the boorish Marek can be understood, and even the Wood Queen can be redeemed.
Uprooted won the 2016 Nebula Award for Best Novel, and was a finalist in the Hugos, an achievement especially in these charged days of the Sad Puppies. The novel has been optioned for film by Warner Brothers. Novik has also written the acclaimed Temeraire series.  It’s clever, deft, assured, and filled with understated power that thrums along even after the story is done. 

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.