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.

My fabulous editor

I have sung his praises before. Indeed, I’ve never been coy about acknowledging that Seraphina and Shadow Scale wouldn’t be the books they are without him.

Well, aspiring writers, you’re in luck: now he’s freelancing. If you’re looking for a professional editor for your work, Jim Thomas is the best you could ask for.

Even if you’re not looking for an editor, you should go look at the picture on his About Me page because the caption just about made me fall out of my chair laughing.

The Story of Owen: Dragonslayer of Trondheim

Today it is my pleasure and honour both to interview the witty and sagacious E. K. Johnston about her Morris-nominated novel, The Story of Owen: Dragonslayer of Trondheim. As the previous dracographical Morris winner, it seemed logical that I should be the one to interview Ms. Johnston and put her feet to the (dragon) fire, as it were.

In fact, it’s not just dragons that we have in common. Owen, like Seraphina, is the story of a musician swept into a world she never expected to be a part of, it’s chock-a-block full of politics and intrigue, and by-golly if it isn’t the most Canadian thing I’ve read in a long time.

In fact, I have a little proposal to make. The next time you hear the words Canadian Literature, don’t think dismal, taciturn realism. Think dragons, music, and politics. Me and Kate have got a muscular new Canadian aesthetic happening here, a genre of our very own. Canadian Symphonic Draco-Politik. You heard it here first (and probably last).

Anyway, silliness aside (which is hard for me, you realize), here’s Owen‘s author herself, to let you know what’s what.


1) Sing to me of Canadicity! (Canaudacity?) Are you Canadian megafauna yourself, or are you an invasive species like me? I have to admit, I was loving all the Canadian references, and I can imagine it must be even more fun for South Ontario to see its place-names in print. What made you decide to set the novel there? Did you find that mythologizing Ontario has changed your experience of living there, or has it always been peopled by dragonslayers?

I was born in London…Ontario, and have called Canada home for most of my life (despite several escape attempts along the way). I actually attended “Trondheim” Secondary School, though only one of my teachers makes a direct cameo in the book. I decided to set the book in Southwestern Ontario because I wanted to write something as local as possible. I was more than a little scared that any editor who liked OWEN would ask me to move it to Indiana or something, but all Andrew Karre asked for was more hockey jokes and an explanation for how milk bags work. I always knew there were stories in Huron County (actually, a lot of them ended up in the book), but adding dragons to the mix was a lot of fun. It hasn’t really changed my experience of living here, but I’ve had more than a few people tell me that driving through Michigan makes them nervous now.


2) Dragons, as you might expect, are near and dear to my heart. Part of my fascination is their versatility, how they can range from violently animalistic to ancient and wise. Yours definitely fall toward the animalistic end of the spectrum. In fact, you repeatedly refer to them as “mindless,” which makes me think of zombies. What are the challenges, benefits, and allures of these kinds of relentless, “mindless” opponents? How deeply did you delve into the biology and ecology of such creatures, and what were some of the practical challenges (or absolute hilarious fun) of shoehorning them into world history?

To begin with, I made my dragons pure reptile because I wanted to set them apart as much as I could. I have read a lot of dragon books over the years, and one of my very first rule for OWEN was that there would be no riding, taming, training, talking to, etc with any of the dragons. Of course, then they didn’t have motives, so I had make them drug addicts, but that turned out okay in the end.

Putting them into history was a blast. Occasionally I got to use dragons that were already there (like with St. George and with Dracula), but the MOST fun was when I got to “three quarter” them in. My method was to make the first three quarters of any given sentence true (ie. Queen Victoria selected Ottawa’s location to protect our capital from the Americans…), and the last bit was the part I made up (ie. …and because it was far away from a Hatching ground). I stuck closer to history than I did to biology or ecology, because history is my strength.


3) The fact that your dragons are attracted to carbon emissions immediately puts the reader on the alert that this may be some kind of ecological fable, but it isn’t that simple. There’s politics here, as well as fame, the manipulation of perceptions, and the various uses of art. Which parts of the story came first, and how did they come to you? Did it take many drafts to develop the layers, or was it all there from the beginning?

The ecological bent came when my friend Colleen would not accept “Honour?” as the reason dragons could not be slayed with a cruise missile (if I had a nickel…), but the story was always going to be about fame. Originally, Owen was much closer to a garbage man than he was to a nation hero, but once I turned the dragons into flying meth labs, it became a bit more epic. Even so, all of that happened before I wrote anything down, so by the time I sketched out THE STORY OF LOTTIE, I already had environmentalism, fame, perception and story telling, and a healthy dose of politics worked into it. I tried to control myself while writing, because I didn’t think anyone would want to know most of the details I had come up with, but then Andrew asked for all the world-building chapters to be added, and it was like CHRISTMAS. So in a way, it was all there at the beginning. I just didn’t think anyone else would want to know all of it, so I didn’t write it down.


4) What has your journey to publication been like? Epic? Any dragons along the way? Was writing something you always dreamed of doing, or did you come to it by some circuitous route?

I wrote THE STORY OF OWEN for NaNoWriMo in 2011. I sold it to Andrew Karre via fill-in-the-blank query letter the following April, and got an agent at the same time. One time in 2009 I told a job interviewer that I wanted to publish a book by the time I was thirty, but I was kind of lying when I said it, because I was 25 and I always panicked when interviewers said things like “What is your five year goal?” My degrees are in Near Eastern Archaeology and Forensic Archaeology and Crime Scene Management, both of which involve a lot of writing. So I suppose I have always been a writer, I just never had any plans to become a writer (but I once read a book by David Eddings where he said that you just ARE a writer, so it’s possible that I reached a zen state on that matter at the ripe old age of 15.


5) Being a debut novelist must be, in some ways, like being a brand-new dragon slayer. There’s a certain amount of fame that comes with it, especially when you’re nominated for awards. Has it been anything like you imagined it would be? Has working on the sequel been a different experience than writing the first book? Do you ever wish you had your own bard?

Everything has been WAY BETTER than I imagined. Carrie Ryan does this thing at writing retreats where she asks questions in the evenings to promote professional discussion (and tears, if we’re being honest), and one of them is “What is your dream goal?”. I have been on several different writing retreats since OWEN sold, and I have had to make up new dream goalsbecause I have already met the first two. Absolutely nuts. And that’s before we take into account the support I’ve seen from my friends and family.

I was totally prepared to weather sturm und drang while writing Book 2, but I managed pretty well. I’ve always known how it went. I just thought no one would want to read it. 10+ years of writing fic online has given me a pretty thick skin. That said, I am quite pleased to have TWO of my own bards. They’re part time, and they live quite far away now, but they’re really good at making me sound cooler than I am.

6) Lightning round!
a) Favourite writing snack?
b) Star Trek or Star Wars?
c) Silliest thing you do in public?
Probably write. I sort of dance and usually cry while I’m doing it.
d) Vancouver or Montreal?
Saskatoon! (I’m kidding: Ottawa)
e) One book (besides your own) that you’d inflict upon teenagers?
Diana Peterfreund’s ACROSS A STAR SWEPT SEA


The Carnival at Bray

Today’s Morris interview, Blythe Woolston (with special guest Carrie Mesrobian!) talks to Jessie Ann Foley about The Carnival at Bray. Go! Enjoy!

Coming up Thursday: my interview with E. K. Johnston, author of The Story of Owen.

Coming even sooner than that: I update my appearances list — again! Part of my delay in posting is that it looks like my appearance in Toronto this week is not a public event, but a librarians’ conference. Not that we begrudge the librarians – of course not! – but I hate giving disappointing news to everyone else.

Similarly, my event in L.A. next week looks like it will be librarians and booksellers only. O Los Angeles friends, I am sad to tell you that! I will have to find my way back, in a more public capacity.

The Scar Boys

Next in our ongoing series of Morris finalist interviews, John Corey Whaley talks to Len Vlahos about his debut novel, The Scar Boys. Go forth, ye admirers of awesome, and check it out!

It’s Appreciate a Dragon Day!

So I’ve been thinking how best to appreciate dragons today. If I were any kind of baker, I’d have made a cake, but since I’m a writer, I fear you’re going to have to settle for words. They’re less fattening, certainly, but maybe not quite as tasty.

Over at Suvudu, they’re celebrating by excerpting the first chapter of Shadow Scale. I know some of you are being patient and won’t go for that, since it will just leave you hungry for more (hm! Maybe words are tastier than I give them credit for). Your patience will soon be rewarded: less than two months to go. Still, even if you don’t care to read the excerpt, go give Suvudu a hug for me. I’m so grateful for their support and enthusiasm.

You can find lots of excellent pictures of dragons on Twitter by following #AppreciateADragonDay. The medieval manuscript art is my favourite, but there are also Komodo dragons, Smaug, Toothless, something for everyone. The good folks at Random House have also compiled a “Seraphina Playlist” of recent tunes:

(NB: “Cold War” was my suggestion; the rest were suggested by people more knowledgeable of recent music than I am. There will also be a playlist of songs I actually listened to while working.)

Updated to add: Here’s my playlist! It’s a more eccentric mixture, I’ll grant you that.

For my own part, I’m going to answer the question posed by my husband last night: Why dragons?

It’s a good question, and one that’s actually kind of difficult for me to answer because I started loving dragons when I was quite young, before I was able to articulate any kind of reason beyond the fact that they were powerful and super cool. Other supernatural creatures couldn’t compare, in fact I don’t think there’s a one that holds my interest like a dragon.

My earliest exposure to dragons — besides Andrew Lang’s fairy books, which surely had dragons in them, but I don’t remember the specifics — must have been C. S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which I read at about age seven. Eustace Clarence Scrubb is turned into a dragon by his greed, and then in the book’s most vivid and memorable scene (to young me, anyway), Aslan peels off Eustace’s dragon skin and turns him human again. It’s a striking image and it underscores an important point about dragons: as much as we might wish to deny it, they’re a reflection of ourselves.

I think dragons combine two warring parts of our nature, the contradiction inherent in all of us, that we may be simultaneously monstrous and wise. Some depictions take both traits to extremes, while others lean more heavily toward the bestial or the godly. Smaug, I think, embodies both. The dragons of Pern, or of E. K. Johnston’s The Story of Owen veer toward the animalistic end of the spectrum (Owen, in particular, gives us dragons as a force of nature, as destructive – and brainy – as a hurricane). One of my favourite clever dragons is Vollys, from Two Princesses of Bamarre, who finds that vast intelligence can be unsatisfying without an audience.

That’s a lot of variation, right there, but that’s the beauty of the beast. There’s so much scope for interpretation and nuance. My own area of interest has been on the intersection of dragons and humanity — to what extent are we dragons and are dragons us? I do suspect (and honestly, this is NEW, the first time I’m thinking of this) that this interest might just be traceable to Eustace Clarence Scrubb.

Monster or Saint, creator or destroyer, bestial or transcendent, dragons — like the rest of us — are full of vibrant potential.

More covers

Foreign editions trickle back to me in their own time, with little rhyme or reason as far as I can tell. Yesterday I received one that looked like this:

Isn't that pretty? I think this is one of my favourites.

Isn’t that pretty? I think this is one of my favourites.

I assumed, based on the alphabet, that this must be the Russian edition, but my husband (who is some kind of language-bot, or possibly a dragon) said, “Not so fast! It might be Bulgarian!”

It turns out he was right, this is the Bulgarian edition, but that begged the question: what does the Russian edition look like? I know there was one, but I don’t have a copy yet. A little digging (my dragon husband is also a Wizard of Googling) produced this result:

Rahrr! I'm a dragon!

Rahrr! I’m a dragon!

Nice, eh? It’s so much fun to see the kinds of cover art the book inspires. I should probably gather all these together on one page someday.


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