Naomi Novik’s books have been reviewed here before – her Temeraire series was given a thorough once-over and emerged quite victorious 😉 I think Napoleon and dragons were the main lure for Piotrek ;). But the novel that woke real interest in her, at least in Poland, was Uprooted, a classical fantasy tale with witches and wizards, and with openly advertised Polish roots. Fragments of it had been even read on the national radio this summer, which is a rare occurrence enough, especially for fantasy books.
Novik spun her tale from the many Polish fairy tales she had heard as a child – she is of Polish descent and although her first language is English, she was careful to keep the Polish names of people and things into her story (paying more attention to how they should sound than look, which I imagine made the pronunciation much easier for English-speaking readers! ;))
It a classic story of a hero(ine) of modest background but an enormous talent, discovered by a reluctant, close-mouthed and seemingly distant mentor who, although he had been doing pretty well on his own for over a century, now finds himself in a desperate need of her help. Well, it’s not even his fault, as she is simply destined to great things and he happened to be on her way. A debilitating curse of a Special Snowflake Syndrome. Do I seem sarcastic? Just a tiny bit, I assure you.
Our heroine, Agnieshka of Dvernik, is a peasant, ordinary girl, a daughter of a woodcutter in a remote, wooded valley of Polnya. At first she seems only to be a necessary backdrop to her beautiful, talented friend Kasia. Since Kasia was born, everyone had thought her special, predestined to a life outside their small, slow village life. Everyone expected her to be taken by the Dragon, the local wizard living in the tower. Every ten years he would choose one girl to serve him for the tenure of a decade. And then he would release her, changed and rich and educated, and completely severed from her valley roots. Once the Dragon took a girl, she would never really come back.
Of course, on the day of choosing the Dragon doesn’t choose Kasia. He takes Agnieszka, seeing in her an unexpected talent for magic. Girls and boys with affinity to magic are a rarity, and a precious one at that. So even though Agnieshka is plain-looking, dirty and too stubborn for her own good, she gets whisked away to the Tower, to become the wizard’s apprentice.
I won’t torture you with describing the story; you probably know it even without reading it, a simple rehashing of old themes and motifs. And I dare say it’s by design; the story arc serves only as a well-used, well-worn frame of reference, so that you wouldn’t be unduly distracted by it while trying to keep up with all those difficult Polish-sounding names and colorful bits of folklore. Suffice to say that there’s the necessary empty-headed but handsome prince, an ambitious wizard, and even a nasty court girl making fun of our peasant heroine, until she is taught her lesson.
But there’s also a lot of pretty cool things as well. The Wood is definitely one of the best. The reason Dragon even is in the valley, the reason the farmers living in there are willingly giving away their daughters to him, is the Wood: an enormous, dangerous forest on the edge of their homes, inimical and hungry, swallowing people and cattle with equal gusto, and sending out monsters to scour and raze the villages, and kill the people in twisted, horrid ways. There are echoes of Slavic and Celtic folklore in this tale of wood’s revenge on humans. The final explanation is… well, predictable, in line with the recent popularity of reimagining and trivializing the evil – from Hannibal Lecter to Maleficent. But there are couple of nice battle scenes, a bit of creative magic, and a really nice story of growth and independence. Of course, there is a lot of well-meant feminism, probably irritating to some in its glaring obviousness, and decidedly not in line with the pseudo-medieval times the story is supposed to be happening, but I didn’t find it overly chafing. What I didn’t like, however, was the thoughtless acceptance of a different gender stereotype, that women are somehow closer to nature, more understanding, more “natural”, while men are the conquerors uniformly trying to subjugate what they don’t understand. Basically every character of Uprooted conforms to this cliché. Last I checked, feminism (at least the liberal version) was about equality, not role – or value – reversal.
This is specially true of the Dragon. If you go through the online reviews you’ll notice that there are two main reactions to the Dragon character among the female readers: they either love him unconditionally (sort of Vetinari crush) or hate him as an abusive jerk. And he comes across as abusive, probably even more than Novik planned him to – he’s a grumpy old man, all right, but his emotional problems seem a bit overstated with all the snarling and pouting and detachment. Still, I wouldn’t go as far as to call him abusive – I think he’s simply the epitome of the gender stereotype of male dominance vs. female understanding; and yes, since you ask [spoiler alert!]: he will be tamed at last.
All right: predictable, clichéd, patched up from well-worn themes, liberally dosed in well-meant but ultimately fallible pop-culture version of feminism… What’s there to like? But I did like this book. It’s written with rare warmth and a very childlike feeling of constant awe. The enthusiasm with which Novik embraces local folklore, from Baba Jaga to the Dragon and the maidens, the evident joy with which she creates a wild, still not conquered world where other beings and other races could be just a few steps away… It’s contagious. I was swept by the story even knowing where it will lead. I guess there is a different kind of magic in retelling the tales we already know. A master in this genre is Robin McKinley – and her influence in Uprooted is clear; the most potent enchantment, and the most demanding of those who cast it, is Luthe’s Summoning, a book-long spell revealing truth. And it’s truly a charming tribute to one of the main characters of The Hero and the Crown.
It’s by no means a groundbreaking, awe-inspiring work. But it’s a pleasant read, with interesting, likeable protagonist, with three-dimensional characters and a lovingly built world straight from fairy tales. Novik invites the readers to suspend their beliefs and even their usual tastes, and come with her into a childhood world, and I for once was glad to have accepted the invitation.