No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

2015/37: Uprooted -- Naomi Novik

He doesn’t devour them really; it only feels that way. He takes a girl to his tower, and ten years later he lets her go, but by then she’s someone different. Her clothes are too fine and she talks like a courtier and she’s been living alone with a man for ten years, so of course she’s ruined, even though the girls all say he never puts a hand on them. [loc. 43]

Agnieszka has grown up in the shadow of the Wood, which is a source of malevolence and monsters. She and her dearest friend Kasia have also grown up knowing that a girl of their age will be chosen by the Dragon -- not an actual dragon, but a powerful and reclusive sorcerer, who chooses a girl every ten years and takes them away to his tower. It's always the most 'special' girl who is chosen. This time around, it's sure to be pretty, charming, neat Kasia. So Agnieszka -- prone to clumsiness and with a knack of attracting any dirt in her vicinity -- is horribly wrongfooted when the Dragon chooses her.

Despite the fairytale trappings -- an isolated Tower, an antagonistic and bad-tempered man, a young woman out of her depth -- this is far from 'Beauty and the Beast'. There is a romantic element, but it's far from the primary focus of the novel. When Agnieszka's story begins, she's ignorant in many ways: her education, and her gradual realisation of the nature of the Wood (a fascinating because non-human foe) and the ways in which it can be combatted, form the main arc of the story. There's plenty, too, about the roles into which women in this world are shaped, and the ways in which those roles trap and stifle them. Agnieszka may be the Dragon's protege, but that doesn't grant her much protection from casual misogyny or sexual harassment.

Like most of the other characters, she's well-rounded: certainly not defined either by her relationship with the Dragon, or by the skills she learns from him. Agnieszka's main quest is, at least for a while, to rescue her friend Kasia from the Wood: she, rather than the Dragon, is the agent of change here. And her perceptions of the flow of magic, the metaphors she uses for it, bring the magical system to life. (That said, I could have done with fewer lengthy descriptions of magical battle. Yes, it's a relentless war, but whether battle is magical or physical, repeated accounts of it pall.) Uprooted focusses on the female characters: Agnieszka. Kasia, the Queen, the ... other Queen.

An enjoyable read: it reminded me somewhat of The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic (which I note I read almost exactly a year before Uprooted), but in Novik's novel the magic, and the magical, are foregrounded, and there's no secondary world.

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