Hurrah! A book I enjoyed!
But it also presents me with a dilemma. Because I did enjoy it, completely and unequivocally. I couldn’t put it down. I started it at 11.30pm on Sunday, and finished it on Monday, shortly after work. I was distressed after my lunch break on Monday because I’d had to stop mid-chapter and I just wanted to know what happened next. Based on how much I wanted just to keep reading, it’s the best of the Hugo nominations I’ve read so far, and possibly the second best book I’ve read so far this year. But I’m not certain it’s actually all that good…
A lot of the issues I had with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms are represented here too. It is definitely tropey, quite often predictable, and there is a trashy romance. It’s even the same sort of tropey – young, simple, rustic girl, thrust into the heart of politics and magic, not politicky enough for it, but is important for Reasons and falls in love with An Important Man. The parallels are many. And yet this I love, when I just could not get on with tHTK. Why? It’s slightly puzzling. Some of it is the writing. I’ve read Novik before and she does have a really, really lovely writing style that’s very easy to lose yourself in. The Temeraire books very much have this. They’re the sort of thing you pick up, and then suddenly you’re closing the last page and where have those three hours gone? I could very easily have done exactly the same with Uprooted, if I hadn’t forced myself to go to sleep because I had work in the morning, and I did get through half the book before reaching that decision. But it can’t just be the writing. For all the Novik’s is pretty good, Jemisin’s isn’t that bad (sex scenes aside).
Part of what sells this, I think, is just that Novik has a better way with a story than Jemisin does. You may recall I grumbled about her telling, not showing? Much less here. Novik rarely tells you anything about a character, but will instead let it become clear through their actions. I think it makes her characters much more immediately accessible.
And indeed, that’s another reason Uprooted works. The characters are just really good. Vivid and real and varied. While the story is a cliché and a half, the people in it aren’t. Agnieszka is not entirely your tropey heroine, and her interactions with the Dragon, while sometimes bordering on trope, manage to keep enough reality and originality to allow it to work. And there’s just such a cast. For so small a book – it’s only 440 pages or so – she crams a lot in. I personally rather love Alosha, the Blacksmith-fighty-wizard-lady, and Father Ballo, the library-wizard. For a book set in fantasy pseudo-medieval-Europe, she’s also crammed in a lot of capable and real women, from sturdy housewives and unflappable village chiefs, to fighty wizard ladies and mysterious politicking nobles. And they’re all very different, and very believable, and very enjoyable. The main character is, of course, by far the best explored, but the others all get their moments, and often those moments are enough to get a real sense of the characters. I definitely enjoyed this when reading the Temeraire books, and I think Novik is doing it even better here.
And thirdly… well, I know I often say when I read trash that it’s either got to be new or very very good, and Novik has definitely ticked a box here. Mostly, it’s the latter box. It’s tropey fantasy (plus romance) but she’s done it absolutely perfectly. And there are bits and bobs that, if not new, are certainly unusual or shiny or interesting. I like fantasy pseudo-Poland. I don’t read enough fantasy pseudo-Poland, I’ve discovered, because it was awesome. There should be more of it. Much of what she’s done has an edge of unusual to it, which along with her real and obvious skill as a writer just makes it a joy to read.
I suspect I shall have to reread Uprooted, because I was so gripped by it that I certainly ended up slightly skimming parts of it, to get through the story more quickly. She’s made a world and characters that I cared about very much, and desperately needed to know what happened next to them. I don’t think I have better praise than that.
So back to my dilemma. If I were to rank the books purely by my enjoyment of them, this one would definitely top Ancillary Mercy. Not by a huge way, but it definitely does. But I honestly think Ancillary is a better book – it’s more innovative, more interesting, and part of an overall wonderful trilogy. Novik has written… and I hesitate to say this because it feels cruel… trash. Joyous, self-aware, glorious, gripping trash. But trash nonetheless. And I don’t like to rate that higher than the Actually Good of Ancillary. But I love it. I wholeheartedly adore this book, and will be stepping up my Novik reading in the near future because of it.
So I think I will rank the Hugo nominees thus:
Uprooted – Naomi Novik
Ancillary Mercy – Ann Leckie
The Fifth Season – N. K. Jemisin
Seveneves – Neal Stephenson
I’ve one left to read – The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher – and I have my suspicions that it’s going to sit firmly in that gap. I’ve read Butcher before, and while I do enjoy his work (particularly the Codex Alera, which avoids the misogyny and skeeve issues of the Dresden Files) it’s not in the same way I’ve enjoyed Leckie’s or Novik’s. Now, of course, I could be wrong. It could be a wonderful book. But I have my suspicions. Oh, and it’s steampunk. And I’ve had my dithers over that genre on here already…
But anyway, I’ll withhold until I’ve actually read the book.
Uprooted is, in sum, a marvellous, fantastic, fun story, set in a beautiful fantasy world of magic and pseudo-Poland, with perfectly real characters. It’s predictable, it’s silly and it’s tropey. But it doesn’t matter, because it’s also just really really good at what it does.