||[Jun. 21st, 2016|09:20 pm]
4/5. I said a while back that I thought this would win at least one of the Nebula and Hugo, and, well, I was right (and in my opinion, now that I've started reading more of the nominees, I expect it'll win the Hugo as well, unless Seveneves fanboys take that). K asked why quite a while back, and I started thinking about it, and then I figured I'd just
word vomit talk about it here. Some of the reasons are orthogonal to why I think it's a good book. First, Novik is a known and popular author, and a presence in fandom (holy cow, see the popularity data; I knew Uprooted would be popular, but wasn't expecting it to be that much more popular!). Second, some of its rivals have their own issues, Jemisin's Fifth Season ending on a cliffhanger, Ancillary Mercy being the third in a series, or Cho's Sorcerer to the Crown being Heyer-romance pastiche and probably not being taken as seriously by some as a result) (I wrote this bit before nominees came out, and Cho is, as you probably know, not a nominee).
Another mostly-orthogonal reason: Uprooted is pretty clearly (but not overwhelmingly so, as the Cho) homage/pastiche (here of Robin McKinley rather than Heyer); there are clear and deliberate echoes of McKinley stylistically (and of course the little Luthe Easter egg in case you didn't grok it). There is a certain generation and class of readers, of which I am one, that grew up with McKinley, for whom Hero and the Crown and/or The Blue Sword (Hero for me) were pivotal, deeply meaningful books, and you can bet that Uprooted pushes all those buttons and pushes them hard. (Only it's better than McKinley, because then plot starts happening a lot!)
One of the non-McKinley things I loved about Uprooted — let me digress for a bit and tell you a story. Over Christmas we saw my family at my sister C.'s house. My parents had just given their grand piano to C., as my parents have moved and she's the only one in our family now who has room for it. So one of the things C. and I put on the schedule was a Christmas concert — C. got out her violin and I got on the piano bench and we played "Gesu Bambino," which is our traditional Christmas song (we used to play this every year at church).
I can't even tell you how amazing this was, you guys. It's more so than it might have been otherwise, because lately I've been doing a lot of crap accompaniment work (because I never have time to learn the music) with a lot of super random people from church who are usually music beginners — but in any case, C. and I have played together for years and years, we know each other's playing
like we know our own mind inside out; it's a seriously heady thing to play with someone else in that kind of partnership.
— And Novik captured that feeling so well, in her descriptions of magic, of magic collaboration. (Although I had to kind of smile indulgently in the way it turned into a romance. First because, well, I've done that with my sister, not my love interests; but also in the back of my head is the part from L'Engle's Severed Wasp where there's a conductor who has a super crush on Katherine and wants to run away with her, and she schools him by making the analogy of how they play really well together as conductor and pianist, and then they leave and play with other pianists/conductors and it all works just fine.)
The other thing I loved a lot about it — and this elevated it above the other stuff I've read this year — is the subtle but visible critique of what, for want of a better term, I shall call genderified conflict. (I don't like this term because it's not actually a breakdown by gender, as Uprooted in fact notes, not least by using the super awesome character of Alosha, but it's perceived to be.) The thing is, most conflicts in epic fantasy, of which this is a descendant, have to do with the hero opposing the Biggest Bad in the most super-apocalyptic way, or opposing the Biggest Bad by enduring to the end in the most dogged, stubborn way. Sauron was always the Biggest Bad to be opposed by all the might (and the non-might) of Middle-Earth… Le Guin does this in The Farthest Shore (though not, admittedly, in Wizard of Earthsea)… or McKinley herself, in Hero and the Crown. It's the thing that heroes do; they oppose evil, they fear and hate and fight against it. And sometimes that is what must be done. Perhaps often, perhaps most of the time. In this book as well: if it weren't for the super-heroic measures that the heroes take against the Evil, there would be no room for Agnieszka to do what she does.
But at some point the act of opposition itself consumes everything. What if there were another way that did not lead to more and more conflict, everywhere? What if there were a way that didn't lead to more and more hate?
What if we could understand, and what if that understanding itself were the key?
(It's something, I think, that science fiction has grappled with a bit more than epic fantasy, in fact, because of always having to deal with the Other, and the alien always being understandable to themselves, if not to us.)
I should say that I don't think this is a perfect book, by any means. One of the ways in which I think it is weakest is the character of Kasia; she's a large part of the book, she's integral to plot and motivation, but I didn't feel like I got a good handle on her character as a real person with major things happening to her even though we see a bunch of her in the book. I would have liked for her character to be fleshed out a little more — she got, oh, two pages of really good character delineation, and then, what, that's it?
And I think it would have been better without any romance at all, but at least the romance we got wasn't treated as True Love or anything. I thought it was rather refreshing, actually, that it was treated as almost an afterthought.