Review: Uprooted (Naomi Novik)

Book Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Fantasy / Standalone

“We were of the valley. Born in the valley, of families planted too deep to leave even when they knew their daughter might be taken; raised in the valley, drinking of whatever power also fed the Wood.”

The woods near Agnieska’s hometown are dark and sinister, corrupting people who are caught too close or too careless. The town’s only protection is the Dragon, a powerful wizard who lives nearby. As his price, he takes one young woman from the village every ten years. Everyone is sure the next girl he takes will be Agnieska’s beautiful and talented best friend, Kasia – but when the time comes, he chooses Agnieska instead, and she finds herself face to face with the power and mystery of both the Dragon and the malevolent woods.

There are so many good things about this book. It is beautifully and cleverly written. I enjoyed the name, and how “uprootedness” comes back again and again both metaphorically and literally through the book. I appreciated the system of magic, and particularly the anti-classist themes that were explored by it. The Dragon looks down on Agnieska’s magic because it is rural, primitive, and intuitive, only to find it is more powerful – magically and emotionally – than his own. And I am always really pleased by the depiction of a complicated but strong female friendship like the one between Kasia and Agnieska.

But ultimately Uprooted felt unsatisfying for me, in spite of all the good things I can say about it. One reason, sadly, is the hype burnout effect. Having fallen in love with her Temeraire series, and then seeing the pretty much unanimous praise for Uprooted, I had enormous expectations for this book. I undoubtedly would have appreciated it much more if I had read it without any knowledge of Novik’s work and without having read any reviews. I went in fully expecting to love it to pieces, and that’s a tough bar for any book.

The second reason is the somewhat indefinable question of resonance – that is, do the story or characters resonate with me in a meaningful way? For whatever reason, this is where the book fell flat for me. Nothing about the book’s thematic content, or the characters, or the plot moved me particularly, and I’m at a bit of a loss to explain why when so many other people have found them so compelling.

The best I can do is try to compare and contrast with a similar book I read recently which did resonate with me, A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn. There are countless similarities between the two books: a young girl who is ‘uprooted’, a Dragon who is actually a human man; a vain, narcissistic but strangely appealing love interest, and the mysterious, sinister woods who the protagonist feels both connected to and threatened by. Both books kept me excited and entertained throughout, but it was A Creature of Moonlight that left me in tears at the end. Uprooted has stronger writing, especially in the comparable sections with the young country protagonist adjusting to life at court, which was much more interesting, exciting, and nuanced in Uprooted. And yet I ended up connecting to the character much more in A Creature of Moonlight. I felt the book was so much about respecting the agency and choices of young women, and I related to it so forcefully. There were such obvious and tragic consequences for not respecting the decisions and values of young women in A Creature of Moonlight; the same consequences weren’t present for anyone in Upooted. And I’m especially referring to the Dragon, of course – I don’t feel like he ever has to face consequences for his condescending and disrespectful treatment of Agnieska.

Which brings me to my biggest issue with the book: the main relationships. I didn’t like the Dragon at all, and his relationship with Agnieska horrified me. I should clarify that I think he’s an interesting and well-written character – but an ass, and so I had no investment in Agnieska’s relationship with him. There is no chance I would pursue a romantic relationship with someone who had insulted my intelligence, habits, and appearance so casually for so long, and it was hard to watch Agnieska do just that. Kasia, on the other hand, I liked a great deal, but I wanted more out of her relationship with Agnieska. I would rather have spent more time exploring her emotional state and connection to Agnieska (and less time with the Dragon).

So that was Uprooted for me; I’m glad I read it, I enjoyed it, but I  wish I had loved it the way I wanted to.

If you like _____________, I recommend checking out Uprooted:

  • Eastern European folklore
  • Atmospheric fairytales
  • Coming of age stories about young women
  • Strong female friendships
  • Standalone (completed) epic fantasy

If you dislike____________, you might want to avoid Uprooted:

  • Content including attempted rape/sexual assault and abusive relationships

Top Ten Reads of 2015

I’m late on this! But I figured better late than never. 2015 has been a fantastic reading year for me.  There are some years where any one of these top ten would have my favourite book of the year, and there are plenty of books that didn’t make it on this list that were truly excellent.

A couple of notes. I’ve kept descriptions short, so check out the full reviews if you’d like to read about details of plot and premise; they are always spoiler-free unless otherwise noted.

And an admission: I cheated by way of including a trilogy as a single entry on this list, so there are 12 books, not 10. The trilogy in question is so ardently adored by me that it would have dominated the top five otherwise, which just seemed unfair when there were so many other great books.


 

goblin emperor10.  The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

The Goblin Emperor is the story of a naïve, well-meaning young man suddenly thrust into a deadly world of court etiquette, political machinations, and social and racial tensions. This could describe a lot of books, but TGE is set aside by a genuinely lovable, well written protagonist and a warm, optimistic tone. If you want courtly intrigue and creative world building with a sympathetic hero, this is your book. Full review here.

iron night cover9.  Iron Night by M. L. Brennan.

M. L. Brennan’s Generation V was ever so much fun. It had all the campy appeal of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but for a nerdy, under-employed, post-liberal arts degree crowd instead of misfit high schoolers. Then Iron Night took everything about Generation V and made it even better. The characters become more complex, the plot more intense, the relationships more interesting, protagonist Fort the vegetarian vampire more hilarious. Fort’s struggles to balance his vampirism and family ties with his own pacifist inclinations make for a darkly comedic and highly entertaining read. Full review here.

honor's knight8.  Honor’s Knight by Rachel Bach

It’s hard to compare a book like Honor’s Knight, second in the Paradox trilogy and my favourite of the three, with others on this list. It’s a romantic action-packed space opera, and it isn’t exactly life-changing – but it does what it sets out to do perfectly. And by that I mean have a truly ridiculous amount of fun following the antics of a spacefaring crew trying to save the galaxy with powered armour suits and many, many guns. Full review here.

bone dolls twin7.  The Bone Doll’s Twin by Lynn Flewelling

The first book in a dark, character-driven trilogy about a young girl disguised as a boy from birth to protect her from a femicidal uncle – and by disguised, I mean that she literally walks around in the skin of her dead brother after a blood magic ritual. Aside from the typical epic fantasy story arc it follows (a hidden queen fights to restore her throne and set things right), the series deals with her gender dysphoria, her confusion at the family secrets and betrayals, and the question of whether the ends justify the means. It’s creepy, dark, has a charming romance, a diverse and interesting cast, and was completely riveting from start to finish. Full review here.

three body problem6.  The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

This is Ken Liu’s English translation of the Chinese science fiction phenomenon that won the Hugo this year – very deservedly so, in my opinion. Despite some exposition dumps and awkward dialogue, this book is so wildly fascinating and imaginative that it easily makes the top ten. It is a fantastic read – and noteworthy because I actually had to stop reading it before bed for a while because it gave me weird nightmares about physics. True story. Full review here.

stange and norrell5.  Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Dark, twisted magic. Victorian era setting and spelling. Gentlemen and ladies exchanging polite witticisms. Endless (but also endlessly entertaining) footnotes. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is enormous, utterly unique, laugh out loud hilarious, terribly creepy and atmospheric, and wonderfully memorable.  Full review here.

dreamers pool4.  Dreamer’s Pool by Juliet Marillier

A dark folklore and fairytale-inspired fantasy novel set in ancient Ireland and nearly impossible to put down. Dreamer’s Pool focuses on two grieving, flawed protagonists, both dealing with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and trying to move on with their lives. The first novel I’ve read by Juliet Marillier, this blew me away with amazing characterization, a moving portrayal of platonic love, a masterfully crafted plot, beautiful writing, and a nuanced and compelling portrayal of trauma and it’s impact.  Full review here.

station eleven3.  Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Set twenty years from now after the collapse of civilization, Station Eleven skyrockets near to the top of the books I’ve read this year based on the incredible artistry of the writing—this is the book on this list I would most recommend to someone who generally prefers literary fiction to spec fiction. The vision of post-apocalyptic life created by Emily St. John Mandel is so vividly tragic and eerily beautiful, and the storytelling haunted me long after finishing the book. Full review here.

left hand of darkness2.  The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

This beautiful, wonderful book is so near and dear to my heart, and Ursula K. Le Guin is my queen. That is all.  Full review here.

 

ancillary justice cover1.  Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

Is anyone surprised? (No. No one is surprised.)

Three very different and equally extraordinary books – rollicking revenge space opera Justice, political and social commentary Sword, and the hilarious and moving Mercy – create one phenomenal trilogy. I love everything about these books, from the ambiguous treatment of gender to the singing to the unrelenting fixation with tea. An evil expansionist space empire run by a clone! Themes of classism, colonialism, determinism, free will, the nature of sentience. Alien races about whom everything is actually completely alien, down to their very conception of identity. A protagonist who is an actual spaceship. The Imperial Radch trilogy is all the most awesome tropes of science fiction, brilliantly and originally executed.

Ann Leckie took an ambitious central concept – what would it be like to be a multi-bodied artificial intelligence? She made that character work as a first-person narrator, in spite of the enormous difficulties that presents. More than making her work, she made her relatable and compelling without ever sacrificing her distance, her alienness. And she followed up on every question and theme that came out of this (how is identity constructed? what defines personhood? who are we really?) to create three of the most exciting, thought-provoking, mind-bending books I’ve ever read, period.

Which makes them easily my most-loved reads of 2015.

Full review of Ancillary Justice here.
Full review of Ancillary Sword here.
Full review of Ancillary Mercy here.

Review: The Moon and the Sun (Vonda N. McIntyre)

Book Review: The Moon and the Sun by Vonda N. McIntyre
Historical Fantasy / Pocket / Standalone

The Moon and the Sun is a historical fantasy, or alternate history, about the discovery of a sea-monster by a 17th century scientist. At the behest of Louis VIX, who believes the monsters hold the secret to immortality, Yves de la Croix captures two sea-monsters for study. His sister Marie-Josèphe assists with his studies, but finds that the more she learns about the sea creatures, the less convinced she of their monstrosity she is. This Nebula Award winner from 1998 is an interesting mix of politics, science, art, and history, with obvious research and attention to detail behind it.

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