I’ve rounded the horn on 2016 Hugo Awards finalist novels, wrapping up Naomi Novik‘s Uprooted (paid link) on Sunday night. Seveneves (paid link) was a 5/5 that roared through my brain, and The Fifth Season (paid link) was a 5/5 that took a bit of time to get rolling, so I was curious to see if Uprooted would keep the streak alive.
Like Jemisin, Novik was new to me; the blurb suggested that Uprooted had a fairy-tale thing going, which didn’t sound awesome . . . but the first few pages grabbed me hard, and I bought it on the spot. I blazed through the book in just a few days, because Uprooted was awesome — a rich, textured yarn set in a world where fairy-tale logic and magic is real, which fully explores just what that would mean for its people.
(Apart from mentioning what’s in the blurb or within the first few pages, and a quote from around 16% of the way in, this post is spoiler-free.)
From a simple foundation
There’s an evil woods.
There’s a mysterious wizard who lives in a tower, and who demands one village girl every decade in tribute.
There’s a witch.
Bored yet? On the face of it, those things sound pretty dull.
But that’s the fairy-tale thing at work: Uprooted is built on a deceptively simple foundation. None of those ideas are new — but what Novik does with them is both novel and delightful.
What does it mean when a forest is evil? Not just dark and dreary and full of monsters, but actively — proactively — evil? And why would ordinary folks lives within a stone’s throw of its edge?
Given the prevalence of Forests of DoomTM in fantasy literature, I wouldn’t have expected there to be many interesting answers to those questions left unplumbed, but Novik does just that — and more.
The forest — the Wood — is truly creepy. It reminds me a lot of the Zone in Roadside Picnic (paid link): a place that operates on its own rules, unrelated to humanity’s, and which is incredibly dangerous.
Here’s one of my favorite examples, a throwaway bit from early on in the book:
Two years ago, an easterly wind had caught our friend Trina on the riverbank while she was doing some washing. She came back stumbling and sick, the clothing in her basket coated with a silver-grey pollen.
Because it’s the Wood, that breeze wasn’t errant or random, and because it’s the Wood, even just the fucking pollen is enough to wreck your shit.
Everything about Uprooted, from its remarkable protagonist and her allies to the way fairy-tale logic comes to make sense in the context of its setting, is that good. Novik delves deeply into each element, spinning things out and unfurling surprises as she goes.
The ending felt a bit rushed, but only a bit, and apart from that I loved everything about Uprooted (paid link). It’s a 5/5 for me — three for three among the Hugo finalist novels I’ve read so far. Uprooted is high on my list of favorite standalone, no-previous-experience-necessary fantasy novels.
Moar Hugos plz
Up next in my Hugo finalist reading, I think, will be The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass (paid link). I’m tired of steampunk, but I sampled it last night and was hooked inside the first few pages — much like Uprooted. As a Butcher fan, I expect this one to be a fun ride.
The Unlucky Isles [affiliate link], the first system-neutral guidebook for my Godsbarrow fantasy campaign setting, is now on DriveThruRPG.