Time on to-read list: Months! Too many months!
Reason for not reading: Ehhh… hasn’t the pseudo-fairy tale thing been *done*, guys? What else is there left to say?
Reason for picking up: Fabulous reviews that seemed to suggest I was wrong.
Verdict: I was wrong.
The pseudo- and adapted fairy tale genre is a thriving cottage industry these days. Ever since Gregory Maguire’s mega-success with Wicked in multiple formats, I think that publishers thought that they found a formula that worked, and boy is it great to find a formula. Because a formula, much like with any magic potion, can theoretically be reproduced again and again for profit, with slightly different names on it- like its a drug company producing a generic equivalent that makes no difference over and over again.
But it does make a difference. It makes a difference whether you really know these stories and what they represent and mean, what their undercurrents are and the secrets they’re too afraid to speak- or whether you are just tossing new famous characters into the story like it’s a season of Celebrity Apprentice. It matters whether you shift perspective and think of a quick nifty twist to slap on something and copy and paste it into an original classic to make a buck on name recognition, or whether you’ve geniunely understood how recombining the elements will actually create something new, using our familiarity with the story to make an emotional impact on us, to make us understand better than we would have otherwise.
It matters because if you do know what you’re doing, you get to produce wonderful things like Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and stun your readers into the sort of enthralled page-turning that should be what’s happening when you’re bringing these kinds of very old, very deep stories to bear in the service of your narrative. So before you venture into this overtrodden ground, writers, take note. This is how it’s done.
Uprooted tells the story of Agnieszka, a girl who lives in a small farming village in an out of the way valley, next to a great, mysterious wood. At the start of the story she is about to be part of a great ceremony that takes place every ten years, where “the Dragon”- a wizard who lives in a nearby tower created by the unknown Ancients, send to protect them from magical threats that regularly emerge from the wood- comes down to select a new girl to serve as his servant. Girls who live in the selected year know that the prettiest and most talented among them are like to be chosen, and Agnieska thinks she knows who will be chosen (her gorgeous friend Kasia has been treated all her life as the chosen one)… and she is wrong. Instead it is she who finds herself at the tower, lost and bewildered, and with a cold, distant, demanding wizard to serve for the next ten years. And of course… as if things weren’t bad enough, they don’t go exactly to plan after that. Our heroine finds herself in the middle of an ongoing magical and political war that has been waged for decades, for centuries in some way, against other countries… and against the strangely malevolent wood next door.*
There’s a lot that’s wonderful about this novel. Let’s start with Novik’s commitment to using the fairy tale format for the best of what it offers, but never being a slave to it. It’s a set up and a structure, but the outward signs don’t matter much. (No, we’re not going to need “the Beast” to be called that or cry over a wilting rose, thanks.) It’s the inner emotional truths that we encounter along the way, the subterraean fears we’ve always been afraid of and are trying to address with stories like this.. that’s what matters. We never know exactly what’s coming because of this take, but we never feel like we’ve left the path we know either, entirely. It’s like Novik is using it to show us parts of the path that we never took the time to pause and see before.
Novik never loses focuses on the girl herself, the heroine. It helps that we spend most of the story inside her head, watching her emotions and thoughts constantly. But it also helps that Novik remembers that this character has to live each moment, whether its fairy tale destined or not, so she has to get her believably to say everything she says, not just do it because “that’s what the princess says at this moment”. The result is a very well-rounded, believable girl who is in the midst of a completely unexpected coming-of-age tale, finding herself facing each day as it comes and trying to move on as best she can. She makes mistakes quite frequently- we see that she has her own way of doing things and can appear backward or stupid to others (shocking in a heroine! I thought they were supposed to be perfect!-Unless they are clumsy so they don’t become too perfect!). She has trouble with hard things that are supposed to be hard and we see them being hard for her, even if we, as readers, know the answer. And we never lose sympathy for her. We see her in awkwardness, where she doesn’t know what she wants, and there’s always a genuine possibility that although she’s set off along this particular fairy tale path, she may end up along another one because she’s run away from this one because it’s too hard, too scary, or just not for her anymore.
I also think that she does a great job with using legend and myth in a way that makes sense to move the story, and always, always, remind us- as the best stories like this do- that people who are statues and appear in books now were always people in the end. There’s usually not much more than a handful of reasons, at bottom, for why people do things, and making “magical” things things that are “Other” and unrelatable, mysterious and powerful, misses the point. In the end, you’re going to have to link it to being human or magic is nothing but an authorial trick to get somewhere faster because it takes her characters too long to walk. The best conceptions of magic I’ve seen in fantasy show it as something that should be used to show us something about ourselves, as something that should be an ongoing experiement that never really settles down, something that is different for each person. I think that that makes sense for magic as a metaphor far more and justifies its place in the story far better than any nifty spell to turn anyone into a frog could do. Magic is a metaphor for selfhood, for achieving things you never thought you could, for making a connection and for the spiritual, fragile things that sometimes exist between us for those moments when there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in your philosophy. Novik really does this well.
You know what, though? For all this deep immersion in form and archetypes and fairy tale characters, this is a page turner of a novel. There’s something happening on almost every page, or the main character is trying to make something happen. We’re off to the races very quickly after our heroine goes to the tower and we really never stop. Towards the end I almost started skimming (if it weren’t so good!) because I just needed to see what happened next and next and next so quickly. Novik’s pacing is excellent and ensures that this never becomes a mystical meditation on human nature and continuity, although I’m sure she would have been up to that too. Nope, she’s writing an action novel in the end, and it shows.
Some people find her treatment of the sex/sensual side of things kind of awkward in general, and that’s cool. It was. I didn’t mind it because the way she did it made sense to me, mostly and I got why she did it. But just as a heads up caveat for those of you who find me suspiciously gush-y about this novel.
But yeah, this is one of those that needs to jump like 100 spots up on your to-read list, though I’m not sure what it would be doing that far down to begin with. I’m mad at myself that I delayed reading it for months. Don’t make the same mistake as me! Don’t be stupid, be a smarty, readUprooted and have a party! *dance break*
There. There’s your Broadway play after all.
Hey. Whatever works to get you guys to read this, I will do it! Get on this!
(*Obviously, as a clear adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, we knew this part was going to happen, so I don’t really feel like I’m spoiling that much for you. No, I’m not going to put it under spoiler tags, before you ask. It’s dealt with in the first ten pages, and the point of that was to get to know Agnieska anyway, so settle down and let’s move on.)