September 27th, 2015

Me 2012

Uprooted, by Naomi Novik

This is less a review than me rambling about the tropes in the book. You've been warned.

Uprooted is a fantasy action/adventure novel. Reading this book was an odd experience. At about 30 pages in, I commented to some friends, "I'm trying to give this story a chance and not throw it across the room, but it's hard. I hope it doesn't turn out to be a romance between the 17 year-old first person narrator and her 150 year-old wizard-master who's a jerk. At which point I probably will throw it across the room.

"I'm not saying it's impossible to write a good romance with a first-person narrator who's a 17 year-old girl and a super-powerful 150 year-old male jerk, but ... actually, maybe I am saying that."

Shortly thereafter, one of my friends looked up the reviews and said, "It looks like it is a romance?"

But at that point I was 50 or 60 pages in, hints of a non-romance plot had appeared, and the narrator had stopped being a useless sack of self-pity, so I decided, somewhat grimly, to stick it out anyway. In part this is because I felt like I was being terribly unfair to the book. It has a bunch of elements that are similar to a story idea my brain keeps trying to convince me I want to write, and part of me is all "(a) you can't blame this book for not being the book you haven't written and (b) you shouldn't resent it for using tropes that you yourself want to use, seriously, how hypocritical is that?"

Anyway, Uprooted has a hate-at-first-sight romantic subplot between the 17 year old girl who's the first-person narrator and a 150 year old uber-powerful male jerk. There is pretty much nothing in that sentence that doesn't scream UNPROMISING at me. If that combination of tropes doesn't instantly rub you the wrong way, you should enjoy this book. For me, the romance turned out to be a minor enough subplot that I could pretty much ignore it.

The book contained a couple of other standard tropes that worked against it for me: a fairy-tale-medieval-European flavor to the setting, and a hand-wavey magic system where wizards could cast weirdly specific amazingly useful spells, with no clear demarcations on what can/can't be done by magic or why.

None of these tropes are innately bad. Some people like wizards who are very powerful and have no clear limits or thematic unity in their abilities. Magic is not used as a "cheat" in the story-- plot-critical spells are introduced before they become crucial. It's somewhat like the way magic is handled in the Harry Potter books. I like magic to be more clearly defined and thematically unified, and I like a sense that magic is integrated in the socio-economic fabric of the setting -- but that's a personal preference, not a reflection on quality.

What I'm trying to say is: this is a well-written, entertaining novel that happens to use a lot of tropes I don't care for. It's not you, book. It's me.

Tropes I dislike aside, the book had a number of qualities I did enjoy. The sinister antagonist embodies the Xanatos Gambit trope to good effect: many times that the protagonists think they've scored a win, it turns out the antagonist has a clever way to turn it against them. The descriptions of the way characters cast spells and their different styles of spell-casting are fun and elegant. The protagonists put their grab-bag of spells to good effect. While the narrator spends the early part of the book having things happen to her while she takes no effective actions whatsoever, she does spend most of the book asserting herself, often coming up with clever and useful ideas. The situations the narrator found herself in often changed quickly, and the suddenness and sometimes horror of these changes is well-captured. There really was a lot here to like. I do feel like some of the key plot points weren't telegraphed as well as would be ideal, but most of what I didn't like is covered by "tropes that don't suit my personal tastes." Anyway, I'll give it a 7, and am certainly open to reading more of Novik's work.