Hugos 2016: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Uprooted is one of those hugely popular books that just left me … cold.

It won the Nebula. Lots of my friends loved it. (A handful disliked it, or liked it with reservations, reasons for which I’ll discuss below.)

I found it hugely derivative, with an unpleasant hero and more rape attempts and general rapeyness than the book actually needed. (Content warning ahead.)

The first lines:

“Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.”

And the blurb:

Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.

Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.

The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.

But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.

Try not to be shocked when I tell you that it’s Agnieszka who is chosen by the Dragon, despite the fact that she is slovenly and plain and — the ultimate failing in a heroine — clumsy.

She thinks she’s going to spend the next ten years being raped, but the Dragon starts out with psychological torture. For the next few chapters, he belittles and abuses Agnieszka, using magic — which drains her energy — to put her in pretty, impractical dresses while she literally cowers on the ground and cries.

Then, because it’s not awful enough, we get some Sexy Interrogation With Overtones Of Rape:

…he stormed across the tiny chamber, while I belatedly tried to scramble up and back, but there was nowhere for me to go. He was on me in an instant, thrusting me flat down against my pillows.

“So,” he said, silkily, his hand pressed down upon my collarbone, pinning me easily to the bed. It felt as though my heart was thumping back and forth between my breastbone and my back…

“Agnieszka,” he murmured, bending low towards me, and I realised he meant to kiss me. I was terrified, and yet half-wanting him to do it and have it over with, so I wouldn’t have to be so afraid…

(That quote is from Foz Meadows, with whom I frequently disagree, but not about this book. Okay, except for her position that this is a YA novel — my local bookstores and libraries have it in the adult genre section, and I haven’t heard much about it in the YA community.)

A short time later, the realm’s prince turns up, and … tries to rape Agnieszka. Upon hearing of this, the Dragon’s response is to (a) blame her for leading the prince on by wearing provocative clothes (which he himself has magicked her into), and uses magic to make the prince think he slept with Agnieszka.

This all happens in the first 20% of the book.

Now, I like mentor/apprentice romance with a big age difference. It’s my number one problematic fave. Chuck in some complicated power dynamics and I’ll eat it up with a spoon.

But, um, sexual violence, victim blaming and reducing the heroine to cringing on the ground and crying is … not the way to do it. In terms of romance, Uprooted read like a How Not To guide for my favourite tropes. It felt like I was reading Snape/Hermione fic from 2001, and not in a good way.

And none of it has any influence or effect on what comes next. It doesn’t tell us anything about the characters that we don’t find out through other methods; it actually contradicts much of what we learn about the Dragon later, when he’s shocked and amazed to learn that the villagers think he rapes his prisoners.

It doesn’t impact anyone’s relationships. It might as well have not happened at all.

For all that A Song of Ice and Fire has a reputation for being hugely rapetastic and violent, George R R Martin mostly just alludes to terrible things happening, and lets the reader’s imagination fill in the rest. Where sexual assault happens, for the most part the narrative treats it seriously.

By contrast, the writers and directors of the TV adaptation are careless with rape, using it not just as a plot device, but removing consent where it was given in the books, turning consensual sex into rape — and then they wonder why viewers are angry and confused, why they would look at the characters differently. The people — men, mostly — creating the TV series don’t really understand rape.

And neither, apparently, does Novik, and it’s even more disappointing, because this is a woman using sexual violence as a shortcut to Unresolved Sexual Tension.

Once the (pointless, meaningless) rapey business is out of the way, the actual plot begins: the Dragon is called away, the Wood attacks Agnieszka’s home, and she and BFF Kasia fight it together, and even win — for a time, until the Wood makes its next move, and then its next, and everything goes to hell.

This is all great: BFFs fighting werewolves and sentient trees and killer cows. (Trust me, it’s a thing.) Until the Dragon comes back (uggggghhhhh) and Kasia is quickly shoved to the side for the sake of the Obligatory Het Romance.

Okay, Kasia is captured by the Wood, and Agnieszka and the Dragon work to save her, and apparently that’s just really sexy. But, uggggghhhhhh, the romance — if you want to call it that — is perfunctory and dull.

And it’s a shame that such an integral part of the story fails so hard, because I love the Poland-inspired setting, the way Agnieszka’s magic is based on language and music, and the whole concept of the Wood. The Wood reminded me a lot of ASoIaF, with its sentient, all-seeing white trees that eat people, but the execution stood on its own. At one point, I was quite glad that I had an ebook, because I was suddenly uncomfortable with the concept of, um, paper. Paper used to be trees. Paper remembers.

But it was all overshadowed by the awful hero, and the terrible romance, and the uncomfortable impression that Novik didn’t quite understand what she was doing.

My Hugo Ballot So Far:

  1. Ancillary Mercy
  2. Seveneves
  3. Uprooted

I did hesitate before putting Uprooted below Seveneves, because I had a lot of problems with that book, and maybe I’m applying a double standard to a female author? But Seveneves was rape-free, and for all that I disagreed with a lot of Stephenson’s artistic and narrative choices, I at least had a sense that he knew what he was doing as he made them.

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One thought on “Hugos 2016: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

  1. This is a real shame, as I normally quite like Novik. And the kernel of the story sounds interesting, if it is more than jyst Rapey NcRapeface wants Free Teen Girls for his services. But I grt the impression it isn’t in fact that interesting. :/ Oh well, every author has a few duds!

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