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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

In a commute heavy week, I have managed to finish the 17 hour and 44 minute Audible book Uprooted by Naomi Novik. As always, let's begin with the publisher's summary.

"“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."

Let me start on the worst aspect of this book. Sit back, close your eyes, and think about sword and magic fantasy for a minute. Such fantasy has knights, kings, wizards and war. There are horrendous monsters that threaten the hard working villagers in such stories, and it is up to the hero - or in this case heroine - to save them. But evil and politics must be overcome, and things get extremely grim towards the end. How can the heroine ever prevail against such odds? That is exactly what Uprooted is like. It is the very definition of swords and magic fantasy. It is trope, from start to finish. It borders on the cliché, and often mounts raids across that border. This book sticks to the tried and true and doesn't try anything out of the ordinary.

Now that I've gotten that out of the way, let me state unequivocally it makes not a damn bit of difference. Uprooted is one the best written fantasy novels I have had the pleasure to listen to in a very long time. It was gripping. I was pulled into the world instantly. It hugely succeeds as both a written work of art and as a story.

As a written work of art, this book constantly satisfies. Characters are real and natural even if they are trope. In the end they are people driven by understandable emotions. They are not stereotypes. Descriptions are rich and detailed without being laborious or over winded. The prose is clean and uncomplicated making it a pleasure to consume. At no point in the audio did I have to backtrack because I didn't understand the language. The writing is strong and clear, and it brings a vibrant life to the story matching it's nature theme.

But the prose isn't the only part of the writer's art Naomi Novik nails in this story. She shows a keen understanding of not only how to tell a story, but how to do so in a naturally flowing manner that is not contrived or forced. Scenes flow smoothly one into another. There is a logical progression to the story making it real, and selling it as truth rather than wishful thinking. And the tools of the writer's art are well deployed in the story's formation, from simile and metaphor to highly effective foreshadowing and flashbacks. It is a joy to take in.

As to the story, while preparing this review I came across one critic's comment comparing Uprooted to a brothers Grimm tale. I can agree with that assessment. Though the story has the trappings of a fairy tale, it is deadly serious. The fairy tale ruse is made even stronger by narrator Julia Emelin's Russian accent. I found the fairy tale versus reality aspect of the story to be a delicious contrast as I processed it. In many ways the story seemed very innocent and naive, like the fairy tale version of Little Red Riding Hood that ends in the wolf's death at the hands of the woodsman. But in the original Grimm, Little Red Riding Hood is a cautionary tale. She, not her grandmother, is eaten by the wolf. That's her comeuppance for not staying on the trail as told. There was no woodsman to save her, and she paid the ultimate price for not listening to her elders. I found myself thinking about that several times while listening to Uprooted. I never confused Agnieszka with Little Red Riding Hood, but I often wondered if there would be anyone to save her, or would the creatures of the woods eat her? I won't give any spoilers here, but let me say the answer is both and neither, and it was well worth waiting until the very satisfying end to find out.

This is the second to the last novel I've reviewed from the 2015 Nebula Nominee list. Up until this point The Fifth Season  by N.K. Jemisin has been my front runner for the award. That decision was a certainty. Uprooted challenges my certainty. There are many positives recommending both novels. My ultimate decision will come down to what deserves recognition: the new and bold but perhaps not as well written or the incredibly well written tried and true. It's not an easy choice. Both authors deserve recognition, but in the end only one can receive the award.

Fortunately I don't have to decide right now. I've still got The Grace of Kings: The Dandelion Dynasty to listen to before I have to make a choice. At 21 hours and 37 minutes long, I'll have weeks to think about it. Thank goodness!

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