Review: Uprooted, by Naomi Novik

The best thing you can read about Uprooted is Naomi Novik’s own Big Idea Post over at Scalzi’s. I’m going to try to say something pertinent and illuminating anyway. I blurbed this book, after all. I feel rather strongly about it.

There aren’t many books that I wish I’d written, but Uprooted is one. (Terry Pratchett’s Nation is the only other I can think of off the top of my head.) And when I say “wish I’d written,” I mean it’s a book that seems to have sunk a tap root directly into my brain, siphoned off a bunch of my preoccupations, and transformed them into a gracious, perfect rose, better than I could ever hope to do.

(Ha — I have effectively paralysed myself with that sentence. So early in the review, too. Talent for self-sabotage: I HAS IT.)

Let me try again. Uprooted is a story about stories (as so many of my favourite stories are). It’s about community and being deeply rooted to place and tradition, about the saving grace of friendship and how we’re always stronger together. It’s mythic and psychological — and includes something you seldom see, the psychology of a forest. But best of all (to my mind) it’s about minds and ways of knowing.

Yes, the book made me think about thinking. As if that were so hard to do.

I am always spying and peeking and taking notes on how my own brain works. Clearly, based on her Big Idea post, Naomi Novik is, too. (Seriously, that post kind of scares me. I’d know if we shared a brain in a jar, right?) The fallibility of memory is an ongoing preoccupation of mine, and I was intrigued to learn of the role it played in the book. I can’t say I spotted it, particularly, while reading. What I spotted was intuition.

Intuition is the way of knowing that interests me most keenly. That’s not to say I don’t also enjoy thinking and sensing and feeling; they’re all great. (Well, sometimes I want to punch feeling in the face) It’s just that my best ideas, the ideas that change the colour of the sky and make me quake in my shoes, come upon me intuitively. I think of intuition as the work my brain does when I’m not looking; answers come to me from an unexpected direction, and I’m not immediately able to show my work.

(I would distinguish between intuition and a “gut reaction,” which I think of as more akin to bias. Both arrive suddenly, like a thunderclap [or a knee-jerk, in the case of bias], but intuition is synthetic — joining disparate ideas together to create surprising new ideas — whereas bias creates nothing, just reaffirms what you already think you know.)

(Is it intriguing that the antonym of synthetic is natural? Indeed it is. Bias is natural. OK, then.)

I was deeply pleased, therefore, to see a protagonist (Agniezska) who not only privileges intuitive knowing, but is effective and (by the end) respected. Novik calls her a “gleaner,” a skill that manifests in an ability to go into the forest and come out with… not what she was looking for, if she even had a plan, but something interesting and unexpected.

I glean in exactly that fashion, not in a literal forest but in the treacherous thickets of my mind. The heart of my art comes from what I find there.

Like Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle, Agniezska is accidentally magical. Her mentor (The Dragon) finds her utterly baffling, not merely because she can’t seem to follow the linear, logical rules of conjuration (a straight path through yet another forest), but because she is able to intuit workings that have no basis in theory, and to accomplish magic that he has already (empirically!) determined are impossible.

I wonder if he gets Economist’s Insomnia, up all night worrying about whether what’s true in reality could possibly be true in theory…

I poke fun at The Dragon (he’s earned it), but in fact I admire him. He’s ancient, set in his ways, and married to his methods; if ever anyone had an excuse to be inflexible, it’s him. He (slowly) (grudgingly) comes to recognize that Agniezska is doing something real and vital, even if he can’t figure out how she’s doing it. Even if it makes him grumpy that there are things he can’t know.

The strongest, most effective magic, though, can only come about when their disparate approaches are combined – synthetically, if you will. Neither intuition nor logic gives a complete enough picture. Each needs the other. A rose, seeking sun, climbs a sturdy trellis.

This, too, echoes my experience of making magic art. Intuition may be my favourite, but it can’t do all the heavy lifting. Believe me, if I only ever operated on that level, I would be an utter dingbat in my personal life, and nothing I wrote would make sense.

(I was lamenting to a friend the other day that my ideas occur in tangles, chords, and clusters, but language is unrelentingly linear. We concluded that novels are a species of slime mould.) (Maybe you had to be there.)

If I haven’t frightened you off with all this reflective brain-combing, and if you read the book, you may find yourself coming back here to scold me. “Why didn’t you mention the pitch-perfect fairy-tale-horrible atmosphere?” you’ll fuss. “Or the well-paced, non-bullying plot? Or the astonishing friendship between Agniezska and Kasia, which is deep and wondrous and all too rare in literature?”

Because you should really go to the Wood and find them yourself. I’ve read this book twice now, and like a vast, dense forest, it’s different every time. Your gleaning will reveal marvels even I missed. That is fantasy at its best, doing what it is uniquely suited to do: the reader brings the seeds of self, sows them in the generous soil of myth, and reaps them a hundredfold.


I’m overthinking it all today

First this article about MRAs being furious about the feminist agenda of the new Mad Max movie. TW for proposed abuse of girls and wives at the end (the post gives warning too, and there’s plenty to read before that part). The tl;dr version: the presence of bad-assed women turns the whole movie into feminist propaganda.

If only.

This particular brouhaha, however, reminds me of another article I read some time ago about the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Cold War. It’s a bit meandering (and has an agenda of its own), but I’m intrigued by the knee-jerk tendency to equate a writer’s visible philosophies, beliefs, or worldview with propaganda. The writer was supposed to become as invisible as possible, and I’m wondering to what extent do we still hold this ideal? Does the contempt for genre fiction — especially spec fic, which really is a literature of ideas — grow from this same root stock?

Thirdly, and then I must get back to work: a frustrated writer friend was complaining yesterday about a review of one of her books, where the reviewer essentially called her irresponsible for depicting two characters having unsafe sex. Apparently you shouldn’t write about sex in a book for teens unless you’re depicting best practices. Otherwise what kind of message are you sending? So… it’s bad to have an agenda if you’re making art for adults, but it’s irresponsible not to have an agenda when writing for teens? Am I understanding everything correctly?

If I just leave this here without further comment, can you still discern my agenda?


Coming soon: Capilano Library, take 2

Just a reminder that I’m giving a reading at the Capilano Library in North Van this coming Friday, May 15th, from 7-8pm. Full details here. They do like folks to register in advance, and Kidsbooks will be selling both Shadow Scale and Seraphina.

This is my last scheduled event for a while, so if you’re in the Greater Vancouver area and haven’t seen me yet this spring, I hope you’ll come on out!


My brain is smarter than I am

I said that in my last post. It’s something I say quite often, in fact, and I mean it most sincerely. It comes from years of self-observation: I work and work (consciously) but still sometimes come up short. Then I stop working (or so it appears) and suddenly the answer comes welling up as if out of nowhere.

But it’s not really out of nowhere, and it’s not that mysterious. There is a part of my brain that doesn’t have easy access to words, but is still able to reason, think, and make connections. In fact, I think it thinks better than the part of my brain that is aware of thinking. The challenge is that I can’t see it working, can’t monitor its progress, and can’t force it to produce on any kind of timetable. I have to sit back, hands off, and have faith in it.

This can be much easier said than done. I’m finally getting good at it, here in middle age, because I’ve seen the pattern so many times before. I still get impatient sometimes, however.

Anyway, when I wrote that last post, a friend of mine (who’s heard me make that exact statement a hundred times before) sent me this article about a recent test of unconscious cogitation: Your subconscious is smarter than you might think.

To which I respond: a) obviously, and b) it’s always so gratifying when science finally catches up to my anecdata.


The ecstatic intellect

So I’m at the stage of writing where my mind is being blown all the time. I don’t know if this is part of most people’s process or if it’s just me. I don’t recall reading about it anywhere, and I don’t think I’ve written about it before, but it always happens. Even with Shadow Scale, though the going was slow, I arrived eventually at this state, where ideas come gushing out of the ground and everything feels connected and meaningful and pertinent.

It’s not my writing that’s amazing me, just so we’re clear. The writing is going fine, but I can tell I’m going to have to re-order a bunch of stuff in ways that aren’t clear to me yet. I actively set that worry aside and try to have faith that it will come. It always does; it always has. My brain is smarter than I am.

No, the mind-blowing comes at me from everywhere else. I walk down the street with my mind open and trawling like a fishnet, snatching remarkable and unexpected fish out of the air. Or else I’m a snowball rolling downhill, picking up glittering and relevant detritus along the way. Or I’m a barometer for ideas, water rising in the storm glass, jittering like a beating heart.

None of those analogies quite capture it. Everything I read, everything I hear and see, everything enters and forms part of the answer, whispers of what my next book is really about. I feel like it’s raining answers, jewel-bright and glorious.

Random book on aging your husband recommends? Relevant. Song you encounter by chance? Vitally important. Conversation with a friend over lunch? Crucial (ye gods, what if it had never happened?)

It an exhilaration very like dancing. The wildest part is that it’s thinking that gets me there. Thinking should not feel like this — how can it feel like anything at all? Maybe I mean intuition. Maybe I’m just a hammer suddenly noticing all the nails.

Either way, this is my favourite place to be, consumed with ideas. Aflame with them.

The wheel will turn, and I’ll be back to banging my head against the table soon enough. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy dancing to the peculiar music of my thoughts.


You missed me talking about music

And I don’t know that this will satisfy you, but I have two small things to say.

First: My friend Karen New has done it again. Go listen to her rendition of “My Faith Should Not Come Easily.” This is another song from Seraphina, the one her mother’s writing during one of the maternal memory scenes. Love (I command thee) the draconic, orderly harpsichord obbligato! Marvel at the soaring flute, and notice the fluttering and the possible snatches of birdsong! Just lovely, although harder (I suspect) to sing.

Second: Today’s earworm, courtesy of author Max Gladstone’s blog (where I ventured to read Avengers criticism and stayed for the music videos).

It’s poppier than I usually like, but the lyrics and the video are talking right at me today. Go out, they’re saying. Go out and get your errands run.

Oh, wait, that’s my conscience. My bad.


This and that

* Over at the Lytherus Book Club they’re reading Seraphina and Shadow Scale. Part 1 of the Seraphina discussion is up today, and tune in tomorrow for more. If you leave questions in the comments, I will be answering them in person soon.

* In other news, I remind you of my Burnaby event AGAIN. Because it’s going to be awesome. We’re practising our songs tonight. If you’re planning to go, please do click that link and RSVP, because the room only holds 60 (including me and the madrigal choir).

* My North Vancouver Capilano Library event, which was cancelled due to circumstances most dismal, has been rescheduled for Friday, May 15th! I hope all the readers who were sad to miss me in March will be able to make it in May.


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