Books Read in 2016: ‘Uprooted’ by Naomi Novik (Review, Part 1)
Book Summary from Goodreads:
“Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.”
Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.
Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.
The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.
But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.
Part 1 of what could be a much longer review, eventually
So I’m about 40% through with Uprooted by Naomi Novik. For the first 30-35% of the book, I found myself speeding through it, not necessarily always enjoying it, but definitely engaged by it—despite some major flaws, which I’ll get to momentarily. There was still something about it I found . . . fascinating enough to look forward to getting back to it each night.
But then . . . my interest started waning. And the sad thing is, my interest started waning right around what we writers call the first turning point—the point at which the biggest conflict of the book is supposed to step in and throw the main plot of the book into the characters’/reader’s faces. This is the point of the book at which things really start happening and when the reader is supposed to become so engrossed in the plot (because, by this point, the reader should already be completely engaged with the characters) that they have a hard time putting the book down.
I’ve reached that point in the book, and I have a hard time wanting to pick the book up and read more.
But let’s start from the beginning.
This was chosen by the fantasy writers in my grad-school alumni group as the fantasy genre book they wanted everyone else (the alumni from the five other genres) to read this year. When we decided to do this, I was excited to get out of my reading comfort zone and start digging in to some other genres. So far, though, our choices have been a bit underwhelming—I didn’t like the YA pick for January (The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater—2 stars), and I couldn’t even bring myself to finish the book my group picked as the romance-genre read for February (Nobody’s Baby but Mine by Susan Elizabeth Phillips—1 star/DNF; I nominated/voted for The Duke and I by Julia Quinn, which came in second in the voting).
When the titles were announced and I went into Goodreads to add them to my 2016 Reading List bookshelf, I was pleased to discover that a couple of them were already on my Sounds Interesting list—including Uprooted, the book chosen as the representative for the fantasy genre.
I didn’t bother re-reading the summary—after all, I’d obviously read the blurb and been interested enough in it to add it to a list a while back. So last week, I downloaded it from the library and started reading.
While it did capture my attention from the beginning (though I did have to re-read the first couple of pages a few times to figure out what was going on), I was disappointed that this was just another typical special-snowflake, The Chosen One, Girl Who Thinks She’s Nothing Turns Out to Be the Most Special ________ of All, young-adult novel. I’d really wanted an adult-level fantasy, something epic, something challenging—something that I’m really not familiar with. I’m overly familiar with the type of book this is.
Except, apparently, Novik tried making it “adult” by including an almost-rape scene (complete with having the main male character rape-blame the heroine afterward). And then, a few chapters later, followed that up by the most awkward, squicky, unromantic, unsensual kiss scene ever (this was even more squicky to me than Leia kissing Luke in The Empire Strikes Back, even after knowing they’re twin siblings).
Now that I’ve been away from the book for a couple of days and have really had time to think about it, I’ve realized that there are many problematic things that I was overlooking as I sped through the first 40% of the book.
1. It’s trying to be “adult” fantasy, but it’s YA. It’s written in first person from the POV of a seventeen-year-old girl. She’s naïve, she’s never been outside of her village, and there’s even a special-snowflake choosing ceremony in the book’s opening to get the plot-ball rolling. Really, the only things that differentiated this from The Hunger Games were that it was only girls being chosen from, and the heroine didn’t volunteer to take someone else’s place—everyone in the village just assumed it would be the prettiest girl, Kasia, but Agnieszka*, our heroine, is picked instead (*I’m mentally pronouncing this Ag-nee-YEZH-ka, which I assume is the Polish form of Agnes).
2. Agnieszka spends (Kindle) page after (Kindle) page of the beginning of the book telling us how much she’s NOT a special snowflake. She hates cooking, which Kasia excels at; she loves to be out in the woods. She’s not ladylike, like Kasia; she’s always getting dirty and tearing her clothes. She’s not pretty and petite, like Kasia; she’s tall and gangly. She’s not graceful, like Kasia; she’s a klutz and has big feet that she trips over. She’s not the nicest, smartest, cleverest, prettiest, or whatever other superlative can be imagined. She’s plain and not special AT ALL. Kasia is the specialest of everyone, so obvs, Kassia will be picked.
3. Every ten years, “the Dragon” (spoiler—this is just the code name for the wizard that protects the country Agnieszka and Kasia live in and not an actual dragon, or even someone who becomes a dragon) has all of the seventeen-year-old girls from all of the villages in the country brought together and takes one of them away to . . . do whatever he wants to them, everyone believes (and this is a very small country with only a few villages—there are only twelve tributes—er, girls for the reaping—um, to choose from). The girls aren’t seen for ten years; and then when they do come out of the tower and come home, they’re “different,” and usually end up taking the bag of silver he gives them and leaving to go somewhere else. Everyone in the villages assume he’s raping/sleeping with them the entire time he has them, even though the girls say he isn’t. But apparently none of these girls has ever actually told (or shown) anyone exactly why she was taken or what she did/learned while she was there.
4. If the citizens of this country know that every ten years the Dragon is going to kidnap one of their daughters and take her away and change her irreparably; and if the citizens of this country know the schedule that this happens on (Agnieszka knows that the year she turns seventeen is the year that one seventeen-year-old girl will be taken and has known her whole life), then why do they keep having children during that year? I know not everyone likes abstinence (this is a pseudo-medieval world, so no birth control), but still. Why would you risk bearing a child that would be taken away from you if you can do something to prevent it?
5. The Dragon is actually picking out the girl who has magic within her to train as a witch up at his tower. This supposedly takes seven years (read that in another review—haven’t gotten to where that’s explained in the book). He says he is under a mandate from the king to do this. But no one in the villages is told this, nor have any of these girls ever come back and said, “Hey, I’m a witch, look what I can do now that I’ve been trained!” Nor has the Dragon or the government told the citizens this is what is going on. WHY??? And why is Agnieszka the only one of these girls to ever come back to the village and show off her magic powers? (Oh, right—#2—because she’s a special snowflake who can’t do things the way everyone else does.)
6. All of the adult wizards in the book seem to be male (though a powerful female witch is mentioned, she’s been dead for quite some time). Yet the Dragon is only looking for/taking a girl to train. What about the boys? Are boys no longer being born with magic? Or is the Dragon only picking girls because he’s a misogynist pig alpha-hole and he thinks that boys wouldn’t put up with the way he degrades his protégé? (More on that in #9.)
7. Why only every ten years? Does magic skip half-generations? Are witches/wizards born only every ten years? And is only one born every ten years? What about any people born in the intervening nine years who might have magic? Do they just not get trained? Do they never learn to use it? And what if more than one person is born with magic in a given year? Why not take everyone with magic, not just one special snowflake/Mary Sue?
8. The Dragon (a.k.a., Sarkan—yes, he actually has a real name) is about 150 years old. Agnieszka is 17. As I said before . . . squicky. Just adding an almost-rape scene for our special snowflake, and lust/sex between a hateful, bitter, misogynistic, verbally abusive, always angry, alpha-hole old man (even if he does still “look young”) and a special-snowflake, adolescent, medieval-fantasy-manic-pixie-dream-girl does not make this an “adult” novel. It makes it a really confused YA novel. And speaking of the Dragon . . .
9. The Dragon/Sarkan is THE WORST. He doesn’t explain anything to her—even Harry Potter arrives at Hogwarts knowing he’s going there to learn magic, and the people around him eventually tell him what he needs to know. But Sarkan? No. He just starts trying to have Agnieszka do magic spells before she even knows that’s what he’s doing and that she can do magic, which leave her so drained that she literally crawls up the stairs back to her room afterward (and he has her change the way she dresses, using magic natch, to please him). He treats her like a slave/his own personal serving wench and continually points out/says that she can’t do anything right (the food she cooks for him isn’t good enough, so he magically changes it right in front of her). And even when she does do something right (see #10), he calls her an idiot or an imbecile or some other degrading name. So this was why their first kiss came from so far beyond left field as to have been completely blindsiding. There is NO chemistry between these two characters. This is no Buffy and Angel. It’s not even Buffy and Spike. This comes much closer to Sansa-and-Joffrey-level awful. (Not quite—Dragon isn’t quite as bad as Joffrey, but that’s the best comparison I can come up with right now.)
10. Of course, when Agnieszka does figure out that she has magic within her and the Dragon is just trying to teach her, she can’t even be normal with that. She has special magic. The normal magic spells—the way the Dragon does magic and is trying to teach it to her—just don’t work with her unique kind of magic. He has to speak these long incantations of words I just skipped over and didn’t even want to do the mental gymnastics to try to read/pronounce. (These are no “expelliarmus” or “alohamora” spells, but full sentences—and, at one point, a full book that must be read aloud.) But because Agnieszka is so different, she can’t say these incantations right and the magic does different things for her. And because she’s so peculiar, her magic is too—all she has to do is hum and repeat one word, usually a bastardized form of one of the words in the Dragon’s sentence, and “feel” her magic to get it to work. This ticks him off to no end; but her magic works so well that at certain points in spells they’re casting together, he looks to her to take the lead because her magic is so exceptional and he doesn’t understand how it works. (Which ticked me off.) And then when they’re finished, he insults her and calls her names, and goes off to his library to sulk. (Although, I started losing interest in the story around the time they get so caught up in the “intimacy” of working their magic together that they fall on the floor kissing and he touches her “between her legs”—ICK, ICK, ICK, ICK!!!!)
11. Just after discovering that she can do magic (and the author uses the archaic word cantrip for the magic spells—which I keep reading as catnip) something happens that draws the Dragon away from the tower. Then, naturally, something else happens while he’s gone and Agnieszka’s village signals for help—in a way that means it’s dire. This signal hasn’t been used in ages. So, of course, she climbs out the window with a rope of torn/tied bedding/clothing and goes to help her village. Even though she barely knows any spells and none of them *should* actually be useful for the epic scope of the catastrophe she’s facing. But of course, because she’s a Chosen One, even when she’s doing things wrong, they end up working out just fine. And then, when another catastrophe falls, this time involving Kasia, Agnieszka is so special that she can do something that neither the Dragon nor any other known (trained, experienced) wizard has ever been able to do.
12. Which leads up to the first turning point of the novel, where I’ve stopped reading for several days because I’ve read this before. Not this particular book—but so many other “this is the mostest specialest girl in the world even though she doesn’t realize it” young adult novels that I know how the rest of the book will go.
Now, those are just some of the character/plot/world-building problems I have with this book. I’m not going to get into Novik’s weird sentence structures, incoherently mixed metaphors and similes, and tendency to spend paragraph after paragraph in narrative description rather than action or dialogue. Most of what happens up to the 40% mark is told rather than shown, and everything is over-described. Yet while this is a 400+ page novel (in print), the characterization is so shallow—even for our first-person narrator—that it’s hard to want to keep reading when I really don’t care about what happens to any of them.
As someone mentioned in one of the three-star reviews I read before writing this, the story might have been much more interesting if it were told from Kasia’s POV.
More to come (possibly) when I make myself finish reading this.
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