Note From Sarah: The Critiquing Chemist will have a few new faces posting book reviews over the next couple of months! I have been asked to participate as a Judge in the Self Publishing Fantasy Blog Off and have recruited a fantastic team to help me with the contest. On June 1st, I’ll be posting introductions for my fellow four judges and a bit more background on the competition. In the mean time, please give Jennie all your support on her first book review for the Critiquing Chemist!
Critiquing Chemist Blogger: Jennie
Medium: Kindle ebook (442 pages)
Overview (No Spoilers): https://amzn.to/3bFgmab
After The Critiquing Chemist invited me to join her team judging the entrants in the 6th SPFBO competition, another team member wanted to get to know us better as readers, asking about our likes and dislikes in the fantasy genre and beyond. My first instinct was to share about my appreciation for fairy tales and fairy tale retellings. In addition to being flooded with Disney content as a child (which, at the time, I did not know were the kid-friendly versions of the original tales), I absolutely loved Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. This grew to include other books such as Briar Rose by Jane Yolen, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter, and novels by Gregory Maguire (honorable mentions that don’t qualify as fairy tales: the Goosebumps series by R. L. Stine and In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories by Alvin Schwartz). I even took a class my senior year of college about the subject (good ol’ GERM 247. Fairy Tales, Myths, and Legends), so I’m basically an expert. Ha! Yeah, right.
Given my current streak of reading thriller/suspense novels, I sought to update my fairy tale portfolio and stumbled upon Uprooted by Naomi Novik. Published in 2015, this highly-rated book has received the Nebula Award for Best Novel and was nominated for a Hugo Award. It has also been reviewed previously by The Critiquing Chemist if you’re interested in checking that out here.
If you are a person who views the blurb as a spoiler, that’s fair, but I tend to use it as a way to gauge my initial interest in a story. Then again, I’m also the kind of person who, uh, accidentally ruins the ending, because I like to flip to the last page of a book to figure out how many pages I have left (luckily, this problem has largely been eliminated upon the introduction of ebooks and tracking the percentage read). So, I will do my best to remember that this is a review, not a summary… Review, not summary… However, if you do read this book’s synopsis, I would argue that the story is much bigger and more rewarding than what that and the first few chapters suggest.
There are many folks who will sing the praises of this work, – and it is a lovely read – it just didn’t speak to me in the way that would elevate it to ‘top shelf’ status. Novik has created a special world with a story that is unique, albeit in a setting that feels familiar (which, to be sure, can be appealing). This narrative has the hallmarks of a traditional fairy tale, complete with rival kingdoms, a forest full of menacing monsters, and magical elements. The characters are equal parts heroic and stubborn (some might even say implacable), and usually both at the same time. As the storyline moves forward, Novik deftly changes scenery, allowing her to further shape and embellish the world, bit by bit. As a stand-alone book, the plot covers a lot of ground in its 442 pages, occasionally to its detriment; there were times where I desired a bit more backstory or a bit more honing of a character’s skills (perhaps to be continued in a sequel or novella, eh, eh?). At its heart, this is a story about a young woman, Agnieszka, fighting to protect what matters most to her, while coming into her own and discovering just how strong she truly is.
Additional Insight (Spoilers Abound):
- If I had to be labeled, I would probably classify as an ‘unreliable witness’. I’m much better at describing the big picture and how a story made me feel, than elaborating on the intricate details used to weave it all together. There’s a reason I had to read scientific articles multiple times: first to identify what the author was selling, and then at least once more to weed out any snake oil. So, I apologize if any of my musings have, in fact, already been explained and are moot points.
- Exhibit A) Despite informing the reader early on that although the Dragon has been abducting 17-year-old girls for decades, ‘at a quick glance in the street I might have thought him a young man’, I still managed to picture him as an older gentleman for the first quarter of the book… I don’t know what to tell you.
- Exhibit B) I got tripped up when the Falcon was introduced, because the wizards started using each other’s first names: ‘“Sarkan, what have you done?” the Falcon said, advancing on the Dragon’s seat.’ I somehow missed from that sentence that the Dragon is actually Sarkan, and later on that Solya refers to the Falcon. I never even considered that they had real names. Perhaps I need to slow down my reading pace. This is a marathon, not a sprint…
- One quirk I noticed was that as Agnieszka would be analyzing the world around her, wondering what was going on or thinking of spells to try out to fix their current predicament, the wizards around her would answer her thoughts as if they were spoken aloud. So, either I read too quickly and missed that they can hear her thoughts, or perhaps this was a subconscious stylistic choice done to prevent repetitive writing? I think it also bothered me because it felt one-sided. It’s not like she knew what the Dragon was thinking, just what his scowls suggested to her. Or is that kind of the same thing?
- As for my gripes, I know it worked out in the end, and I’m not saying I don’t understand her stance, but I found Agnieszka’s persistence to save Kasia over and over regardless of real and potential consequences to be really reckless. That kind of shortsighted, all-consuming focus makes it difficult to come up with a good plan of attack (especially on your own).
- There was also a bit of ‘I don’t know how to do it, so I won’t even try’ in Agnieszka while learning how to perform spells that I found irritating (although I know the Dragon wasn’t the best instructor for her style, so it was kind of like asking a fish to climb a tree as a gauge of its learning ability). She does acknowledge that she wished she’d done more to hone her craft throughout the book: ‘That was when I understood how much a fool I’d been. I’d never thought of magic, of my magic, as good for anything, until I stood there and knew that there was no one else but me; whatever was in me, however poor and clumsy and untaught, was more magic than anyone else in my village had. That they needed help, and I was the only one left who could give it.’ I’m not sure I like that I can relate more to the Dragon…
- Although the fight scenes were necessary for the story, it bothered me how these situations and subsequent deaths were brought on by someone else being overzealous (I’m looking at you, Prince Marek) while Agnieszka is used as a pawn. It’s like the tension that arises from something not being your fault, while simultaneously not being able to do anything about it. This kind of scene is compelling, but I have a love-hate relationship with it because it tends to make me angry and in need of Bob Ross’s ‘happy little clouds’.
- The time spent in Polnya felt a little slow while they waited for the trial to start. I would’ve liked to learn more about the origins of Alosha (the Sword), Father Ballo (the Owl), and Ragostok (the Splendid) – I’d include Solya (the Falcon), but he was skeevy. And tell me more about how to get on the list of wizards and the naming ceremony (and why it didn’t work for Agnieszka)…
- How many other apprentices are being taught to follow strict pronunciation, specific body movements, and precise recipes that would benefit more from Agnieszka’s relaxed style of ‘sound it out until it feels right’?
- The Dragon had seemed shocked when Agnieszka blended her magic with his, as if that weren’t normal. Maybe it was just unusual for him, as someone who was as resigned to a solitary life in the tower as the women he kidnapped. Are she and Sarkan only able to create magic that is more than the sum of its parts because of their different approaches?
- Since Kasia has escaped the heart-tree with tree-like qualities, is she now one of the wood-people who transformed into trees at the end? Is this where the wood-people came from? Could she join Agnieszka in turning into a tree after consuming the heart-tree fruit and water from the pool?
- I like the idea that Agnieszka could be Baba Jaga somehow. But it’s my understanding from folklore that she is generally someone to be feared. One way I can connect these two ideas is to consider that one of the unknown creatures in the Wood was finally able to trap Agnieszka and managed to turn her evil. And don’t think you’re out of the woods yet just because she’s been ‘dead and buried for five hundred years’, we all now know that Jaga is a time traveler…
- Final thoughts: While there were characters that grated on me and moments that were too fleeting, I still enjoyed the tale.