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.

3 thoughts on “Review: Uprooted, by Naomi Novik

  1. Pingback: 2016 Hugo Finalist Review Roundup | File 770

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