Friday, February 9, 2018

Uprooted by Naomi Novik (2015)

This book has buzzed like a hornet's nest for two years.  A good friend from my book club read and revered Uprooted last year.  It's definitely been on my radar.  I'm glad I finally got to it, because it was really great! 

It has a very intense plot.  Nominally a fantasy book, there are elements of horror that pop up here and there - giant walking sticks and preying mantises that rip off people's heads, enchanted wolves and boars that rip open unsuspecting villagers.  There are strands of ideas from other books and folklore that run through Uprooted as well - Beauty and the Beast immediately will come to mind (which has its own elements of horror); I think the modern reader will also see a bit of The Hunger Games as well (John Christopher Tripod series also came to mind, but that allusion is a bit more unknown). Stephen King's IT has some similarity (the idea of the valley that's under the spell of this evil entity for generations; again with the horror).  But what I was most reminded of, again and again, was Tolkien's Old Forest.  I don't know Novik's influences (this is the first book I've ever read by her), but surely Tolkien played some part in her literary upbringing.  This isn't a copy of Tolkien - I would have thrown THAT book down in disgust - and not really an homage either.  Rather, the spirit of the Old Forest haunts the novel; it sort of like she asked herself at the very beginning "What if I wrote a book about the Old Forest" and then just went with it, whole hog.  The Old Forest in Tolkien isn't ever as terrifying as Novik's Wood - but it could have been.  Old Man Willow would be right at home in the Wood, and The Spindle and the Withywindle could be the same river (Mirkwood's enchanted streams start in this place too).  

I also though the title was germane - this concept of being uprooted really flows throughout the novel in a clever way.  The word is mentioned three times: 

And even before then, it occurred to me in a flash of bitterness, he had meant to steal her for himself—he’d meant to take her as much as the Wood had, to devour her in his own way. He hadn’t cared about uprooting her life before, making her a prisoner in a tower, only to serve him—why would he care now, why would he ever risk letting her out?


"I looked up into Kasia’s face, hungry for one last sight of her, but the Wood looked out of her eyes at me: black rage, full of smoke, burning, roots planted too deep to uproot. Kasia still held her own hands away from my throat."


“Do you?” Alosha said. “Tell me, if I said to uproot every person living in your valley, to move them elsewhere in the kingdom and abandon it all to the Wood, save them and let it all go; would you come away?” I stared at her. “Why haven’t you already left, for that matter?” she added. “Why do you keep living there, in that shadow? There are places in Polnya that aren’t haunted by evil.”

You think, at the beginning, that "uproot" is about Agnieszka being uprooted from her home and forced to live as a slave of some sort to the Dragon - but it soon becomes clear that the word "uprooted" has some literal meanings that relate to the Wood.  I really liked this imagery.


UprootedUprooted by Naomi Novik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A complex plot; precise, imaginative writing; memorable characters; and a setting that both feels familiar and unusual made this a splendid read. Nominally a fantasy book, Uprooted has shades of horror haunting its edges (for example, giant man eating walking sticks). There are strands of folklore and fantasy running through the novel too - Beauty and the Beast for sure, but most notably Tolkien's Old Forest. There is noting derivative here though: Novik's novel is fresh and original, exciting and unexpected. Excellent and clever writing; I liked the imagery throughout. Definitely deserves the recognition it's received since being published. 



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