Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Hugo Nomination #1: Naomi Novik's Uprooted

I haven't sent in my Hugo nominations yet--I need to get on that--but one of the novels I'll certainly be nominating is Uprooted.

Agniezska is the brave, stubborn, sensitive heroine of Naomi Novik’s 2015 novel — and she’s about to steal your heart. She comes from Dvernik, a remote village on the edges of the enchanted Wood, the dark forest that creeps like a blight over interior Polnya. The only thing holding the Wood back from engulfing the land is the Dragon, a feared sorcerer who lives nearby. For his work keeping the danger at bay, every ten years the Dragon demands one young woman from the village. As the time for “the taking” approaches, everyone in the village expects the Dragon to choose Kasia, Dvernik’s golden girl and Agniezska’s best friend. However, something about Agniezska catches the Dragon’s eye and she is the one chosen to leave her family and friends for ten years to serve him in his tower.

The setup might lead you to expect a typical Beauty and the Beast story, but Uprooted quickly becomes to something else. Novik’s plot weaves in elements of myth, magic, politics, coming-of-age, and yes, romance. It is easy to see the fairy-tale inspiration at work, but not always easy to pick out exactly which fairy tales she’s working from. There’s a good reason for this: Novik’s novel grew out of Polish fairy tales that her mother read to her when she was a child, mixed in with a healthy dose of her own imagination. As such, her story is populated with figures we know, such as Baba Jaga, the witch from Slavic folklore who is ferocious or maternal by turns, and figures we don’t know, such as woods-walkers and heart-trees. And an ancient legend of a marriage between a human king and a fairy queen becomes the linchpin to defeating the evil in the Wood.

The myth and legend that Novik evokes in Uprooted is only one aspect of some fantastic worldbuilding. As with her TEMERAIRE series, Uprooted is an alternate history of a medieval Slavic world; Polnya is Poland, locked in a hostile relationship with its near neighbor, Rosya (Russia). The reason for the conflict lie in the Wood itself; the queen of Polnya was taken into the Wood by a Rosyan prince and has never been seen since. In their efforts to rescue the Queen, Agniezska and the Dragon visit the capital of Polnya, navigating the treacherous waters of politics at court.

They also enter deeper into the Wood than anyone ever has, encountering horror and death. In The Wood, Novik has created an incredible setting, the fairy-tale analogue to Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach series. It isn’t haunted — not precisely — but it is corrupted. Like more creepy versions of the apple trees Dorothy encounters in Oz, the very plants and animals of the Wood have become toxic. Something as simple as drinking water or touching a leaf in the Wood can sicken a person, sometimes with an illness that is visible like horrible deformation, and sometimes with an illness that doesn’t present itself until the person finds themselves in the midst of some unthinkable act, like murdering their family. The farther into the Wood one goes, the less likely it is that they will ever make it out, much less come out unchanged. [spoiler, highlight if you want to see it:] Kasia is taken by walkers, which are like giant men made of sticks and branches, and thrust into a heart tree, one of the Wood’s many strongholds. Although she only resides there for a night, cleansing her of the corruption inside and out requires all of the magic that Agniezska and the Dragon can summon. And even when they succeed, Kasia is forever changed into something part flesh, part wood. This kind of corruption is like possession, and it is a visual metaphor for something the Wood wants desperately—to overtake all of Polnya. It’s like evil kudzu.

I don’t use the word “evil” lightly here. When we finally meet the real villain, she is terrifying and powerful, but though the darkness within her threatens humanity, it is actually a creation of human hatred and violence. The final conflict is resolved a bit too quickly for me, but it works within one of Novik’s themes, the idea that human ties to the land are deep and healing and that, in reclaiming land, we restore and strengthen ourselves. While Uprooteddoesn’t telegraph any particular message or moral, this particular bit of the story could easily be a parable about our current relationship with the planet, reminding us that what we poison will eventually end up poisoning us.

Relationships are key to Uprooted. Agniezska’s relationship to the land, to the valley she grew up in, is part of what gives her such enormous power. But her relationships to others — her stubborn loyalty to Kasia, her affection for her family — are what humanize her and make her a fantastic character. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about one of my favorite relationships in the novel: the romance between Agniezska and the Dragon. Novik creates great chemistry between these characters, and Agniezska’s willful boldness complements the Dragon’s arrogant reserve. He has no idea how the outside world sees him until she comes into his life and shows him. It’s like a fantasy version of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, but Novik doesn’t gloss over the parts that Austen left out, if you know what I mean. In other words, the romance between the two fulfills all my dreams of what a satisfying fictional romance should be. Even if you’re not a fan of romance, however, there is plenty in Uprooted to enjoy and savor.

This review originally appeared on, where I (and the rest of the FanLit reviewers) gave the book 5 stars.

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