Is Our Writers Learning? Uprooted by Naomi Novik (#SFWApro)

22544764UPROOTED by Naomi Novik (cover illustration by Scott McKowen) would have been a great book if not for Novik handwaving away the abuse and rape Agnieszka, her protagonist, suffers

The Background: Uprooted takes place in a valley on the edge of the Wood, an evil fairy-tale forest that spawns monsters and is slowly expanding. A wizard called the Dragon protects the valley; as part of his tribute, every ten years he takes a village girl away to serve him for a decade; the locals assume the Dragon rapes them even though the women deny it.

The Story: As the Dragon always picks the most talented of the girls, Agnieszka assumes she’s safe, but wrong! She has magic so the Dragon is legally bound to train her. She’s a poor student so he bullies her, belittles her and insults her every day she’s there, until one day she has to use her magic to save her village and the Dragon. They now see each other differently, but between political intrigues and the Wood, may not live to explore their feeling.


Strange magic is good. The magic here is very eerie—there are no clear rules, but it has a sense of something powerful, unearthly and uncanny. And Novik resolves the story without violating Sanderson’s First Law—magic saves the day, but it’s within the established boundaries of sorcery. I may be able to make use of this insight working on Southern Discomfort.

Awesome women are a problem. Several of the Goodreads reviews blasted Agnieszka as a “special snowflake” because she’s so amazing. But isn’t that a common heroic trait—the seemingly ordinary guy/girl who achieves greatness? I can’t but wonder if a male protagonist would have generated the same outrage. That said, given Agnieszka’s strength is because she finds a new way to do magic, why aren’t the other wizards ever interested in how she does it, or why their way didn’t work as well?

In 2016, it’s still possible to have rapist and abusive protagonists who don’t get called on it. Which believe me is not an insight I intend to use in my own work. As Foz Meadows says, the Dragon bullies Agnieszka, tells her she’s worthless, intimidates her with a physical assault that she assumes is rape and when Prince Marek tries raping her, blames Agnieszka for inviting it. Once she proves herself, he starts acting nicer, which I can sort of buy … but I can’t buy Agnieszka forgetting he treated her so horribly she contemplated suicide. Instead it’s rationalized away: Agnieszka realizes it as the Dragon being such a perfectionist, he can’t accept how flawed she is. At another point a truth spell reveals all Agnieszka’s hidden weaknesses and petty jealousies, but we don’t see any flaws in the Dragon (Meadows in another post discusses what a common trope this is). I don’t know I’d have thought of it this way if not for reading Meadows’ post (though the Dragon’s gratuitous meanness makes it a safe bet I’d dislike him as love interest), but once she pointed it out, it’s obvious. Oh, and he does an absolutely piss-poor job of teaching Agnieszka at first, which makes his outrage she can’t learn that much more annoying.

Then there’s Prince Marek, who attempts to rape Agnieszka because he assumes she’s the Dragon’s mistress, so he’ll get man points. He plays a huge role in the second  half of the book, but Agnieszka never thinks about the rape when assessing his worth; even when he declares she must marry him for state reason, there’s no “You tried to rape me!” flinch. As Meadows points out, it’s never even called rape. Agnieszka rationalizes that Marek just doesn’t think she’ll say no, and never reconsiders that.

I still liked Uprooted, but Meadows hated this aspect so much she “rage quit” after a few chapters. I can’t say I blame her.


Filed under Is Our Writers Learning?, Reading

6 responses to “Is Our Writers Learning? Uprooted by Naomi Novik (#SFWApro)

  1. Oh yes, I disliked Sarkan and his relationship with Agnieszka immensely. Novik played it up as a smoldering attraction but their interactions were, in the main, straight-up abusive and it felt like a case of Stockholm syndrome. Which doesn’t make for a happy ending to me when they get together, more of a reinforcement of cultural norms I’d like to see flushed away.

    I think the way this novel was marketed may have also set me up for disappointment. There was so much emphasis on the Polish fairy tale/folklore aspects as fresh and exciting in reviews and press materials, but it barely plays into the meat of the text beyond the Polish names, some Polish cuisine, and a bare mention of the Baba Yaga. The Afterword didn’t help, since Novik never clarifies that the tale she wrote was the main inspiration for the novel isn’t a traditional Polish fairy tale but a modern work (which is why I’d never heard of it until now).

    That doesn’t have much to do with the actual novel, though, so much as me getting disillusioned with the promotional machine behind it.

    • That’s right, I’d forgotten about the Polish folklore this story was supposed to contain. “Baba Jaga” just felt like a really clumsy attempt to just half-file the serial numbers off.

      • Not the least because Baba Jaga/Yaga (I tend to use the latter spelling in English for pronunciation reasons…which I’ve been criticized for, I admit) was so peripheral and so sketchily described.

        This is all *fine* in terms of the novel itself, and coming from an immigrant background too it sucks to have people constantly questioning the “authenticity” of your work if you take inspiration from the home country. But the way it played out in promotion and the reviews/hype which took that promotion at its word, in retrospect, *really* bugs me.

  2. Pingback: Special snowflakes in fiction (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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