The last book I read for the Hugo season was Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. I read several of Novik’s Temeraire novels, and they were quite good, 1but I ran into that problem where I lost track of the series in between book releases. So I was initially interested in her new book, but unfortunately her Big Idea spot at Scalzi’s Whatever sort of backfired on me. In it, she closed her pitch writing:
Uprooted takes place in a Poland that exists only in my own mind. It grew out of the fairy tales my mother read to me in Polish when I was a child, not older than my own daughter, before I was too old to really believe in forest fairies and mountains of glass. After I was five we stopped speaking the language at home, and I didn’t learn to read it until I was much older. Even now I’m not fluent enough to read the stories by myself without help, but when I plug uncertain words into translation sites, the meanings that come out aren’t the ones I am looking for. The word olbrzymi means enormous, but not to me; in my head it means monstrously overgrown, tangled, terrifying.
It was a well written description of a book that sounded so personal to Novik that I wasn’t sure what I could possibly get out of it.
Then, when Uprooted got nominated, I somehow managed to mistake it in my head for Updraft, which I’d already read. It wasn’t until just a couple of weeks before votes were due that I finally realized that I hadn’t read one of the novel contenders. So I grabbed the audiobook2 and gave it a listen.
And that was a wise decision!
Although I read the book before the Hugo votes were due, I’m writing this review after the votes have been announced. So I can say: I was really disappointed that Uprooted did not win. It was not my favorite all-around for the Hugo (you can see my list if you’re curious), but for me it was the clear stand-out among the nominees.
Three things stood out to me. First, the characters were incredibly vivid. One of the things that, to my mind, really sets a work of fiction apart on a different plane is having antagonists who are every bit as fully realized and relatable as the protagonists. And I don’t mean in having tormented anti-anti-hero villains (although that can be fun, too). I mean a novel that really echoes the human reality in which everyone has a similar pool of motivations, dreams, desires, hopes, and fears and it’s only the small details of character and circumstance that separate our paths. In particular, I really, really liked the character of the prince who was consumed with a desire to rescue his mother from the clutches of the enchanted forest. There’s no question from the very outset that he’s a bad guy, and in some ways irredeemably so. But despite his unforgivable sins, Novik continues to flesh him out and add relatable aspects to his character: genuine bravery, genuine loyalty, and a son’s pitiful longing to bring his mother home. Everyone in the book is drawn this way: no one is simple. No one is two dimensional. No one is a supporting character. You get the sense that every single character in the book is the main character in another story, one that you’re just not reading at present. And that’s a really, really rare gift.
Second, I loved the writing. The magic, the history, the politics, the intrigue: all of it was remarkably well done and surprising. Nothing felt forced. There was never the slightest indication of a character doing something just to move the plot along, And yet at the same time, the story was full of twists and turns I didn’t expect. That’s something that’s really rare for me, and it’s a sign of a singular story. Sure, every story we tell is in a way an echo of an earlier story, but some echoes are rebirths and this story felt like that. I think that’s especially important for inclusion in a Hugo, by the way.
Third, and most importantly, I just loved the story. It was a really satisfying tale to me. I also liked that it was a stand-alone. There was no setup for a sequel, no hint that it was part of a larger series. It was just a story, expertly told and peopled with living and breathing characters.
This is the kind of book that makes me like fantasy again (albeit briefly), and that I would recommend to absolutely anyone as a great read. It’s a real shame that it didn’t win the Hugo, but it did in my heart.