Friday, March 17, 2017

uprooted, naomi novik



The shorter of this review is: The novel was thematically indiscriminate and inappropriately old-fashioned, and Novik seemed to have no control over the mechanism of the story — but I am always #dtf wizards. Here's the longer:

[AND OBVIOUSLY THERE ARE A GREAT MANY SPOILERS]

I have the same problem with Uprooted that I had with Novik's very successful genre franchise Temeraire/Her His Majesty's Dragon 1 (whoops!), which is that it is sordidly, pointlessly conservative and it makes me want to vomit. Temeraire is, in fact, much easier to detest than Uprooted, because it possesses an authority-worshipper's monomania for the war-theatrics of colonial-era England (and France), a temporal location for which hatred is painless — which, indeed, invites hatred. Everyone who matters has disavowed all the things that colonial Europe celebrated, pursued, and believed in; uninhabited now (or, "now inhabited only by barbarians"), it's become a safe place to romanticize, to cleanse of its intrinsic annihilative compulsions and retcon into a fairytale kingdom that only makes the kinds of mistakes that can be fixed.

This fills me with a mindless, igneous rage.2

Uprooted is more subversive even than that, though! It hides behind the same lopsided romanticization of a familiar elsewhere, but instead of occupying itself with various babyish wargames it attempts, among other objectionable goals, to equate goodness with guilelessness.

Begin at the beginning: Uprooted is a genre romance novel, sort of; looked at dispassionately, it's just a slightly dirty fanfiction dedicated to the popular pairing The Great Magician/Nerdy Female Reader. The novel's love object is a wizard called "the Dragon" (lol), who is mostly just a more athletic version of Snape, but tethered to the mystical architecture of Luthe the Mage-Master (we have discussed Luthe elsewhere) (if you don't know him, you should contrive to meet him forthwith) (basically Luthe is just a less-scary version of Galadriel) (but with a penis) (he self-reports a penis) and with a few elements of Howl stuck onto the back end of him to make the novel's conclusion look bittersweet and strange. And maybe also some Chrestomanci? The Dragon isn't as glamorous as Chrestomanci, for certain, but he shares that character's enthusiasm for dressing like Liberace. The much-less-interesting heroine is an amalgam of Hermione, Sophie, and, as I mentioned earlier, the Reader. I began to have some real trouble with the story because of this character, whose name is Enoby Agnieszka, because there was a very wide, very cold expanse of blank space separating her perception of the story's reality from my own (no, I don't think it was fancy postmodern backtalk). The fantasy landscape that surrounds the two protagonists is above average, in fact, but it includes some peculiar topography and is mostly just a map, if you see what I mean (you will).

The novel's plot is this —

In a fake version of feudal Poland, some shitty little rural towns are perpetually menaced by an evil enchanted Wood that ruins the people's crops and food animals and turns them intermittently into homicidal maniacs, by means of an impenetrable magic. Therefore, there are wizards. This one wizard collects girls, but he lets them go later, and on one special occasion he chooses to collect the novel's narrator instead of her importantly pretty friend. The wizard is very mean to the narrator, and doses her with invalidating insults at every encounter, while also saving the lives of the poor farmers that live around his castle. The narrator haphazardly performs tasks of domestic servitude for the wizard, while constantly and silently monologuing about how boring and ordinary she is, and how everything that happens to her is frightening in one way or another. It looks for awhile like the wizard has apprenticed the narrator in vain, because she sucks at magic — but later, after some scary things happen, it turns out that the narrator is actually really great at magic, because she has Feelings and also understands the tiny lives of the poor/the whispers of the wind. Suddenly the narrator's pretty friend has been eaten by the evil Wood! The narrator saves her, with Feelings, but the pretty friend is now a superhero. This is presented as a minor tragedy. Also there's a handsome and bellicose prince, who is both rapey and transiently villainous (he represents Toxic Masculinity) (much different from the masculinity practiced by the Dragon, which is 100% legit). Subsequently, many dumb and confusing events occur; they are all boring. The narrator is, for various reasons, forced to go to the City all by herself, where she finds that literally everyone is small-hearted, superficial, and vicious. They laugh at her because she's boring and ordinary and lived on a farm. This is presented as a tragedy of colossal proportions. Then the narrator realizes she loves the wizard, sort of, and other confusing and complicated things happen. They too are boring. The narrator, who has inexplicably become a powerful magician, goes back home and has sex with the wizard, but she is sad because he doesn't have Feelings, not like she does. There's an epic, unusual battle between the forces of Good and Evil, and then a long denouement which is not super-consistent in either its tone or structure. The reader learns the secret of the evil Wood. It is one million times more interesting than the rest of the book. Then there is a happy ending, for certain questionable definitions of the words "happy" and "ending."


Most of the book is occupied with that top-note love story, which is just a slightly icky retelling of Beauty and the Beast ("Boring Girl and the Asshole"), but beneath that there are several separate layers.

  • An historicization of Polish folktales. Definitely the best part. I am all about anything that isn't set in Northern Europe (or Imaginary Northern Europe), and I was really happy to get to visit Imaginary Poland. Believe it or not, Novik really shines as a storyteller when she's manipulating the elements of Polish folklore; one character, for instance, was a figure clipped out of The Big Book Of Generic Global Bed-Time Stories and repatriated onto native narrative soil, and she was the best. Uprooted's magic spells are also influenced by the Polish language, and they looked very pretty to an eye trained on Latinate magician shit. If Novik had confined herself to just Poland and wizard-fucking, I might've become a fan.
  • A sensible conservation narrative about the dangers of Nature and the need to accept and shepherd its power. Pretty self-explanatory? You have to live in the natural world, not with it. You cannot control what's green. We've heard this one a lot. Uprooted's positioning of the wild earth as a villain hovered upon the threshold of being interesting for the first third of the book, but in the end it all collapsed into small-scale Tolkienesque conventionality, because of...
  • The importance place gives to story/magic. This is where I began to emit smoke out of my ears. If we are talking about "place" like "Old Times Poland," then I think we'd all like another helping of that. If we're talking about "place" like "finding your most complete self and dealing with the world from that position," then that's the simple structure of a bildungsroman. But that isn't what we're talking about. Uprooted wishes to establish the transcendent supremacy of the little platoons of the farm & the kitchen, as opposed to the Big City, where all the wicked fashionable people dwell in civilizational thrall to the Church. I'm not making that up. This is probably the biggest theme (besides the wizard-fucking) to emerge from the story. (No one is ever wicked in the little farm villages unless they've been possessed by the evil Wood.)
  • A magical fable describing the immortal sisterhood of women. This part was incredibly weird. It was pretty good just as itself, and was also a decently original rendition of a classic feminist theme, and I have no idea why Novik shoved it into a flashback in the almost-last chapter of the novel. I'm being very serious, here — this little sliver of a backstory was worth twelve of the rest of the book, and Novik presented it with all the humane subtlety the main narrative was missing. It was very odd, watching an author put all a book's poetry in the basket of its subplot. Why did she do that, do you think?

At first, I was annoyed that Uprooted wasn't going to be a lesbian love story — it totally could've been a lesbian love story — but then I changed my mind (!!!). I don't think the novel could've supported lesbians after all, since its entire purpose was to reinforce tradition, history, and the fructifying powers of romantic love as the basis for human society. By the end of the book, Novik seemed actually to suggest that, to the degree to which these fossilized forces of orthodoxy are not honored, civilization is proportionately dysfunctional. No, like: The last scene is set in some shitty village hoedown during some shitty village farm festival. They're going to dance, are the Dragon and the Boring Girl. It was pretty bad. The "saintly jamoke is horrified by the unwholesome conduct of the fancy folks" interlude was worse, though, as was Novik's insistence on repeatedly equating awkwardness with virtue.3

Also, all the really pretty girls get Othered right out of the human race.4

Speaking of which! I had a suspiciously difficult time relating to the narrator, even though I too was an ugly and clumsy teenager. Boring Girl's voice was relatively sympathetic, to be honest, but it was also inherently untrustworthy (not on-purpose). She was too self-aware and reasonable to be a proper teenager — she was able to parse the elaborate psychological dynamics that governed the Dragon's emotional reticence, for example — but occasionally the author retreated into the character's adolescence to excuse certain technical contrivances, like her refusal to understand the concept "interacting with people unlike oneself." This lack of understanding precipitated several integral plot events, but held no water on its own terms & was extraordinarily lame. The fact that Boring Girl had never thought about sex before her encounters with the Dragon (except in the context of marital rape) defies belief even for a genre book. Also, I cannot overemphasize how tacky the "country folks are the life-blood of humanity" story component was; if Novik doesn't think that the villagers who live in little close-knit hamlets in charming rural locations can be pointlessly vindictive pricks, Hester Prynne has a scary story to tell her.

Also! Also, Novik reduces the influence of the Church (an Imaginary Magic Church, to be clear) to a barely-mentioned triviality venerated by witless slum-dwellers and ignored completely by virtuous farmers. Again, I would like to assert that I'm not making that up. A scene describing urban religious frenzy — and featuring the half-assed specter of the historical witch-burnings of medieval Europe — is one of the novel's major set-pieces. Uprooted's Church was powerless and mostly pointless, though, and it didn't even have any visible leadership. It didn't enter into the proceedings as anything but a plot point, which is fine in theory, but in practice seemed pretty ridiculous. The Church defines everything for rural people in communities all over the world; I could accept its being absented in a fantasy novel, but only if Novik had allowed something (magic?) to replace it. I wonder if she's ever even visited a small town?5

I also think Uprooted overused the word "corruption" by about nine thousand percent, in the service of continually emphasizing how insidious the creeping, sneaking, overwhelmingly wicked life-force of the evil Wood was — but it got old really fast and started to seem not only unskillful, but also like an editor had gone through the draft and written "WOOD ISN'T SCARY ENOUGH, ADD MORE CORRUPTION" in a margin and Novik is a literal reader.

A couple of other issues: The Dragon's shocking secret was pretty banal, as such; I was expecting to hear that he'd eaten 10 years off every apprenticed village girl and thereby intended to live forever. The real story — that he used the girls' terrestrial connection to the land as a conduit to siphon power away from the vile, unbeatable Wood before setting each one free as a woman of the world — was moderately chivalrous, and also a recapitulation of the novel's endless crusade against (female) self-awareness.

Also, the Dragon was much less caustic and intimidating than Novik seemed to think he was. Snape was way cuntier, and he lived a children's book.6

Uprooted had pacing problems. All genre novels have pacing problems.

And yet: The novel deftly employed the Queen of Sheba's false rose love-test as a central leitmotif — the rose-work was McKinley all over, but it was so effective in the story that I didn't really mind.7 I also appreciated the attention Novik paid to the relationship between image and object; this is the true substance of book-magic, and I'm always happy to see it dusted off and brought out for company. At one point Boring Girl, in her plain specialness, is able to reach through a hallucinatory wizard trick to touch the Dragon, which was both romantically effective and legitimate traditional storytelling. (This part also recalls Rowling pretty heavily, in three or four different ways, but I'm sure Rowling stole it off someone else.) Also, if you could overlook Boring Girl being conveniently seventeen when Novik needed her to be, and the fact that the Dragon was useless as an expository device, their actual romance was kind of charming. But I find the Great Magician very attractive, of course (I am always reading stories about him) ("him"?), and I am a Boring Girl myself, so probably you shouldn't listen to me.

To be fair: I chose to dwell so attentively on the novel's weaknesses because they angered me with a hot fire of burning wrath, but Uprooted had some good things going for it, too. Boring Girl's journey of self-discovery as a person and a magician wasn't actually uninteresting, and I wished more of the book had been devoted to watching her learn about herself and her place in the world. In fact, I think my problems with Uprooted could be reduced to just this single issue — the narrator didn't go far enough down the path to enlightenment, or understand how much she was limited by her innocence and unworldliness. That's one of the most important parts of being an actual adult, I think; realizing how flawed and uneven the glass through which you see the world really is, rather than just excusing yourself for your near-sightedness forever (cf. Tiffany Aching). Other good things: At one point, Boring Girl violates a spell that the Dragon uses for self-protection in search of sex with him, and I think that it was probably the only instance of written heterosexual foreplay I've ever read that didn't make me want to spay myself with a fork. There were also positive narrative characteristics which were unrelated to wizard sex; the novel takes a shifting and sympathetic approach to villainy, for example, commendable in any genre novel, but especially rare for mainstream fantasy. Many of the supporting characters were well-made, as well — the second heroine, Kasia, performed the stations of the invulnerable paragon of virtue with purposefulness, and Alosha, a female war-magician with a small but important part to play at the end, was the novel's finest achievement. I wish someone would write a book about her.

For all its many and superlatively annoying flaws, I suppose there's something to be said for Uprooted's support for the flame of human connection against the unending campaign of time and the green earth. I just wish it didn't have to be such a fucking dork about everything.

(I will amend this review and give Uprooted ten stars if its publisher comes out with a new edition under the title "I Fucked a Dragon, and I Liked It." )


  1. And also with Harry Potter and the, against which I've been experiencing a renaissance of disgruntlement.
  2. Burn Hogwarts to the motherfucking ground, also.
  3. I am waiting for the awkward, homely female character who is a giant jerkface, and stands between the good-hearted heroine — who spends forty-five minutes on her hair & makeup every morning — and happiness for half a novel. The only way this douche-ass "pretty girls vs. nerd girls" dichotomy makes any sense is if we accept that both groups are competing for the same resource, which is male attention. (You can have all my share, pretty girls!) 
  4. Because the stuck-on but lovely backstory is recursive — by which I mean that it forms the original, historical template upon which the currently-unfolding prime narrative is "based" — one cannot help but feel the the real moral of Uprooted is "very bad things happen when the Guy picks the Pretty & Important Girl instead of the Boring Girl With A Good Heart to marry." One quits the book when one finally notices it, and talks shit about the story to one's friends on the internet, but then later regrets it and decides to give the story another chance. Results are mixed. (Okay, I'm not completely certain that this lesson was supposed to be learned by readers of Uprooted, and I'm hesitant to ascribe intent where none exists, but.) (BUT.) 
  5. Here is some elderly polling research about rural religion in America. Here is a book which discusses the same phenomenon. Cities have huge delusional religious populations too, of course, but I think the Blue Laws of rural communities — many of which are still extant — speak for themselves. In my shitty Trump-humping state, for example, we all got excited as fuck in 2012 when we were suddenly allowed to buy beer at Walmart on Sunday. (My intel on rural religion in the communities of Imaginary Feudal Poland is obviously somewhat lacking.) 
  6. It was a goddamned children's book, accept it. Go to meetings if you have to. 
  7. To be more specific, this story element was lifted from McKinley's Sunshine, which is also a genre romance novel and retelling of Beauty and the Beast, but it differs from Uprooted in the closeness of its approach to greatness. I don't know why more people don't read it; sometimes it seems like the only people who've read it are the authors who steal parts off it to use in their own books. At the very beginning of Sunshine, the awesome heroine runs away from home to have a metaphysical occult soulbaby with an imprisoned vampire — which is, I promise, much more excellent than I made it sound. (I don't even like vampires!) (I realize I've been talking about Sunshine constantly for months; I honestly didn't know I liked it that much. I suppose I'll have to write about it, even though I don't really want to.) (By which I mean that I inferred some things about the story that McKinley probably wouldn't approve of.) 

6 comments:

  1. I've not read the book, but I found this a very enjoyable review!

    I'm sorry to hear you were really ill btw. I hope you're well on the way to recovery now. And I'm sorry to hear it affected your hair! But I bet you look great with a short style.

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    1. You are v. kind, thank you very much.
      (I don't think you'd like Uprooted, tbh.)

      Aww, so sweet! I actually look moderately terrible, but I make up for it w/extra makeup. And it'll grow out. ≤/just hair>

      I'm feeling fine now, thank you.

      Such a nice person! Everyone I know online is nicer than me.

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  2. The wizard is very mean to the narrator, and doses her with invalidating insults at every encounter

    Just great... He Who Negs...

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    1. It disturbs me at a fundamental level that Beaumont's respectful, courtly, physically ugly hero of a Beast has gradually been replaced by a sexy, creepy, obsessive asshole who treats his future wife/ partner like shit and has to be gradually talked out of his abusiveness. The 18th century version was way more feminist-friendly :[

      Thank you for your comment!
      (I am pretty sure, re: Janine also, that you would not enjoy Uprooted.)

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  3. Dayum, you that s one good review [Makes mental note to ensure that future fantasy novel is sent to less perceptive reviewer]
    Have you come across Simon Schama's "Landscape and Memory"? There are lengthy passages there where he tries to capture the relationship between the inhabitants of Poland / Lithuania and the forests, back in the days when the Forest was still a thing. I would not be surprised if those chapters weren't one of Novik's sources.

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    1. Wow, thank you very much!!! That means a lot to me, coming from a learnèd Discworld character such as yourself.

      Have you come across Simon Schama's "Landscape and Memory"?
      Not yet, but I intend to remedy the deficiency forthwith.

      I would not be surprised if those chapters weren't one of Novik's sources.
      Personally, I think Novik's sources mostly trended toward various fantasy-themed romance novels published in the 90s, but I am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.

      Thank you for your comment!

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