Monday, June 20, 2016

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

What can I say?  Life intervenes and I just haven’t been feeling like writing much even when I do have time to read, which isn’t as often as I’d like.  But as it happens, I’ve read four of the five best novel nominees for this year’s Hugo awards, and I’m going to try to say something about all four of them.  (As for the fifth, I’m sorry Jim Butcher, I think I might actually like your stuff, but I’m a completionist at heart and that’s an awfully big commitment.  Please comfort yourself with your large pile of money in lieu of a little-read post on some random guy’s blog.  I’m sure you will understand.)

Starting off then with Uprooted, which just picked up the Nebula Award and is probably the favorite for the Hugo this year, and in my opinion deservedly so.  I hadn’t read anything by Novik before; apparently this is something of a departure from her usual oeuvre of Napoleonic-era fantasy novels, but I’m already favorably inclined to it by virtue of it not being a setup for a huge fantasy trilogy or more.  It appears more or less self-contained and covers a frankly staggering amount of plot in a reasonably slim volume.  She makes it look easy, which is even more impressive, since it’s the sort of thing that gets noticed when you mess up and rarely commented on when successful.

Anyhow, the novel follows Agnieszka, a 17 year old farmgirl who lives in a fantasy analogue of Poland (you should have guessed by the name, and if you didn’t, you’ll figure it out by all the other names.)  They’ve got ongoing tensions with the neighboring kingdom of Russia Rosya.  But for Agnieszka and the area where she lives, the real issue is the Wood.

Major shout-outs to the Wood here.  This is seriously a messed-up place, and clearly distinct from your average forest, even the average evil one.  If you’re stupid enough to enter the Wood, then the best thing that could happen to you is that one of the horrible monsters in there kills you.  If you’re less lucky, then you might get shoved into a corrupt heart-tree, anchoring the constant advance of the Wood and undergoing mental torture until you lose your identity, before continuing to endlessly suffer while not even understanding why.  If you’re really unlucky, then you may end up corrupted by the Wood first, betraying your kin and village before ending up with the endless suffering bit.  The Wood also isn’t content to stay behind its borders; it’s always attempting to expand, sending out spores of corruption, raids of evil creatures, miasmas, and so on.  Anyone going in there gets possessed, it’s no respecter of persons.  One of the best settings I’ve seen in a novel in some time, and despite the best efforts of everyone it’s winning.

The sensible thing to do would probably be to cut bait and run screaming the hell out of there, but you know how those stubborn country folk are, they are going to hold to the last.  (And as it turns out there is a bit more to it than that.)  The king has set up a wizard in the area to hold the line as best he can; he occasionally loses a village here and there but he does his best.  He’s allegedly immortal, and goes by the name “Dragon”.

Every decade, he picks a 17 year old girl from the local villages, who lives with him in his creepy wizard tower fortress before being released after the ten years is up.  These girls leave with a sack of money and a case of wanderlust – they go home for a bit and then skip town for the big cities or other shores.  He’s been doing this for some time, and all the girls claim that Dragon doesn’t touch them.  The villagers don’t exactly believe this, but since he’s their immortal feudal liege lord and a sorcerer to boot, no one bothers to complain.  As the novel begins, Agnieszka, who is naturally 17 years old and up for the choosing, reflects on how she’s going to miss her good friend Kasia.  Clearly Dragon will choose Kasia, she’s beautiful and kind and her mother has groomed her for her whole life in the skills that she will need to serve a nobleman.  Agnieszka is plain, and clumsy, and can’t keep herself presentable for more than fifteen minutes, and so it’s a shock to her (if not the reader) when Dragon ends up teleporting her to the wizard tower to begin her apprenticeship.

Note I said “apprenticeship” there.  It’s almost immediately clear to Agnieszka that she’s not exactly getting the same deal that the other girls usually get – she finds friendly notes from previous holders of the position that Dragon will usually just ignore them as long as they have dinner ready on time, and that it’s not such a bad gig.  However, Agnieszka is almost immediately harassed and browbeaten by Dragon, who eventually lets on to her that she’s got magical talent, and he’s required by the laws of the kingdom to offer her training in the area.  With the Wood out there and trained mages being the only real way to hold it at bay, they can’t let a single adept go to waste.

In many novels of this type, it would turn out that Agnieszka is the most powerful magic user the world has ever seen.  And that is . . . sort of true.  At first she chafes under the tutelage of Dragon, who is practically a martinet when it comes to pedagogy, but it later turns out that the areas where she’s gifted are different, and that maybe she just has different sorts of skills.  Dragon is a rigid academist, so at first he doesn’t even see why Agnieszka should bother trying to do it her way, but a couple of impressive results later he begins to come around on her usefulness, and later to both of their surprises (if not the reader’s) perhaps more than that.

One of the many things that I liked about this approach is how it plays with some of the typical clichés you expect in fantasy novels of this type.  Agnieszka has some successes in simply trying things that wouldn’t have occurred to Dragon or some of the other more classically trained magic users.  However, sometimes these things also come back to bite her, since she’s not aware of the reasons why more skilled mages wouldn’t have attempted it.  (They usually have good reasons, you see.)  It also turns out that the Wood is not stupid, and is perfectly willing to try and find an upside in its losses if it can.  Her inability to comprehend the full depth of the Wood's malevolence nearly ends up having disastrous results on more than one occasion. 

There are also a couple of really impressive setpieces throughout the book – one ill-advised foray into the Wood, for one, and a harrowing account of a battle at the wizard tower, for another.  Turns out that one of the most powerful tools that the Wood has at its disposal is using people against each other.

As much as I like this overall – and it’s great, by the way, absolutely worth a read – there are a couple of little things that set me off it in parts.  Agnieszka is a great character, but she sort of randomly veers between incompetence and masterful competence in unpredictable ways.  Maybe this has something to do with being 17, but sometimes she’s really quite masterful at personal interactions and sometimes she’s not, and the disparity can be somewhat jarring.  I am also not personally a fan of the “oh I’m so clumsy and messy, mercy me” type of characterization.  Fortunately this gets set by the wayside reasonably early on, or at least dialed back to an acceptable level.

The book does benefit from a very strong ending, which I wouldn’t dream of giving away.  Suffice to say that we find out exactly why the conflict between the Wood and humanity as a whole began, and in a world where some mages spend their immortal lives forging weapons of death, that empathy can be as potent a force as spell-forged steel.  It manages all this without getting too sappy or unrealistic.  It’s a hell of an achievement.

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