Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Uprooted - Naomi Novik

Uprooted is Naomi Novik’s latest; she’s better known for the Temeraire series, an alternate history where dragons are used as a flying corps during the Napoleonic wars. But Uprooted is something else entirely; a fairy-tale for a new age. It has a narrative that absolutely pulls no punches – there’s darkness here, accentuated rather than hidden by the lyrical prose – but there’s also truth. There’s characters that felt absolutely alive, and a story that had me turning pages, wracked by highs and lows, desperate to see how it all ended, and reluctant to finish it. Put simply, Novik’s put together  something really special.

The narrative begins, as is traditional, in a village on the edge of nowhere. A happy village – the archetype of contentment. But as in all good fairytales, something is awry – every ten years, a wizard who rules the valley in which the village sits, claims one of the girls from the valley. Nobody knows what for – but they do know that they don’t see the girls for the next ten years, and when they return, they return changed, and move quickly away.

If a wizard wasn’t enough to deal with, the village also sits on the edge of The Wood (note the capitals). This brooding forest is a centre of corruption in the valley’s midst. It draws people into it, and they don’t come back. Or they do come back, horribly changed, bringing the corruption of the Wood back with them.

Into this setting, this village trapped between the Wizard and the Wood, walks the wonderfully named (and startlingly difficult to pronounce) Agnieszka. As with all fairytale heroines, she’s something of an ingénue, an innocent in her village. Prone to clumsiness and self-doubt. But she’s willing enough to face the wizard when he comes to choose a girl to take away, even though everyone knows that it’ll be her best friend who is taken instead.

Without getting into spoilers, it doesn’t quite work out that way. The narrative quickly expands out from the choosing of the girls, into a much wider fabric. If you’re drawn to plot heavy books, I can safely say that a lot happens over the course of the text. The stakes are very quickly raised, and each triumph from the characters seems like it’s followed by an even greater potential for defeat.  The text does start at a bit of a slow burn, but it’s doing so to gather a variety of threads to wrap you up in by the mid-point, into a second half where it was almost impossible to put the book down out of a desire to know what happened next.

So, this is a book where things happen – love, hate, murder, heartbreak, jealousy, friendship, large battles, small victories – they’re all here. They’re all also written extremely well. Novikhas clearly put her heart into the prose – it’s sparkling with wit, dazzling with a kind of iconic imagery which leaves the characters traced through your imagination on quiet words of fire. But mostly, it has a feeling of truth, a feeling that the characters on the pages are acting like people – they’re sometimes heroes, sometimes arrogant swine, mule-headed or contradictory…and absolutely real.  Again, I won’t get into details for fear of spoilers, but I will say that Agnieszka’s character arc, from village innocent to, well, something else entirely, is smoothly and wonderfully done. This is a protagonist with a strong sense of agency,  where the character’s changes are organic, believable, and thoroughly emotionally affecting. In truth, there were parts of the book where I switched from outright laughter to near-tears in the course of a couple of pages. Novik knows how to tug the heartstrings, but manages to do so without schmaltz – the characters have this effect because they’re  made real to the reader. That the prose can have this effect is a sign of how well the characters are drawn, and how well  Novik’s text presents them.

Uprooted is, at heart, a fairy tale. A story of magic, mystery and wonder. Of coming-of-age. Of Princes, castles and kings. But make no mistake, it also wants to talk about the darker side of the fairy tale narrative. Monsters. Murders. The occasional gruesome demise. The creeping terror that drives a person to heroics. This is the side of the fairy tale where every action has a consequence, where magic always has a price to be paid. Novik manages to merge these two aspects together seamlessly, and that fusion is what makes the narrative such a joy to read.  Absolutely, entirely, without reservation, recommended.

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