Hugo Award Assessment: Uprooted

I swear I didn’t realize this until after I had finished reading “Uprooted” by Naomi Novik.

A while ago, I wrote a post about the female author sweep of the Nebulas, and explicitly called out one of those interviewed for not understanding science fiction and fantasy because she insisted that she wanted to do something different, an alternative narrative that wasn’t as revenge driven, when there was, indeed, tons of science fiction and fantasy that had ignored revenge narratives and/or subverted them … like her very examples, in fact. This actually becomes ironic because I will sum up “Uprooted” this way:

The best thing you can say about it is that it’s a pretty much standard fantasy narrative, bringing nothing new to the genre and sticking pretty close to the standard or expected formula.

The book carries through the expected tropes. There is, in fact, a great evil threatening our erstwhile, obscure, clumsy heroine. As she is swept away from her village by the enigmatic Dragon, she eventually gets swept up into both the magical and political currents of the world, ending in a climactic battle against a couple of evil and evil-influenced sources, until she attempts to take out her revenge, learns that the cause of this was both an injustice and a misunderstanding, helps the villain move past that, and then starts to try to heal the world and the evil caused by that original injustice.

Tell me what in that has not been done in fantasy over and over again?

So the best thing I can say about it is that it’s standard boilerplate fantasy. Unfortunately, the book also has a number of problems with it.

First, the book continues the trend of the impossibly competent heroines that ultimately, because of that hyper-competence, face no real trials. The protagonist here has her most notable trait as being clumsy, and while that originally seems relevant to the plot that trait isn’t really built upon. But when she starts to pick up magic, she casts spells that the most powerful wizard in the land couldn’t even understand, let alone cast. Okay, we can buy that her power might work differently. But then she goes to rescue her friend and does so even when the super-powerful witch that she learned the spells from had never done anything like that. Then she manages to free her friend from the influence of the evil Wood with power that she doesn’t understand and isn’t trained to do. And it goes on like this for the entire work: the protagonist does things that no one is supposed to be able to do without all that much effort. And even when we think that she might face a challenge, it gets resolved far too easily. For example, since she can’t do traditional magic, when she is tested for wizardry to get a name she can’t pass the tests. This, then, could lead her to have to strive, to struggle, to convince them, to read from another spellbook or … she could just cast the earthquake spell and resolve it in under a page.

It’s this quick resolution and pacing of the book that really “helps” give this impression of the protagonist. Pretty much every sequence ends almost before it starts … or, at least, is a lot shorter than it should be given its importance. Things are resolved too quickly which gives the impression that they were resolved too easily. Thus there’s limited challenge, as Novik throws her superpowered heroine against the evil and the evil always bends, and sets up another ploy, that the heroine thwarts. People die, but no one we really care about.

And another problem is that, well, Novik doesn’t build up the characters enough for us to care about them. The Dragon’s main character traits are irritation and knowledge, and yet somehow he ends up being the romantic lead. Why would they be interested in each other at all? The book never shows any sign of the Dragon softening, of them coming to understand and respect each other, or anything like that. They end up wanting to bang after casting a spell together. Is it the closeness of the spell that did it, or something more? We’re never told, and it becomes rather unrealistic. Is Marek just a jerk, a loyal son, or what? We never know. What’s the Falcon’s deal, other than his loving to play court politics? We have no idea. Outside of the protagonist, Kasia and Alosha, all of the major characters we’re exposed to act like jerks for most of the book, and as such there’s no emotional depth to them or their actions. Marek is presented as wanting to take the throne from the mentioned briefly before dying Sigmund, but what if he wasn’t? What if, at heart, Marek was someone who preferred direct action to anything else? Then his push to free his mother might well have been driven also by his frustration at not being able to confront the Wood directly, and feeling that he finally had a chance to do so. And his attack on the protagonist and the Dragon at the end — that led to his death — could be seen as the result of that nature as well. And, mostly importantly, the death of Sigmund could be easily given a tragic emotional tinge with little effort, as Sigmund goes off to lead the war because if Marek led it Marek would end up with the throne … while Marek had no interest in the throne itself but wanted to fight the enemy. Politics, then, destroys them both in the end. And all of this coming from simply adding a standard fantasy motivation to Marek … interestingly, one that Maric had in Dragon Age.

We also don’t learn enough about the world or how magic or politics works in it. When the protagonist is learning about magic, the Dragon is too taciturn and the protagonist too uncaring for us to learn anything about it, and so we can’t see the progression in the protagonist. All we get is after the fact everyone talking about how amazing it is that the protagonist can do what she does. If we knew how normal magic worked, we could easily see that her power is not from her being incredibly powerful, but because she does things differently than everyone else. Add in her failing by not being powerful enough or skilled enough at some things, and we might have a protagonist we can relate to. As it is, we find out everything after it comes up, and so everything seems like it’s just too convenient, and only there because it needs to be so that the protagonist can solve yet another problem.

Ultimately, the best that can be said about the book is that it follows standard fantasy formulas, but it has significant flaws that make it a fairly weak fantasy novel. The low end of “Meh” is the best it can do.

Last up is Jemisin’s “The Fifth Season”. The door is wide open to get to top spot. Can she steal it?

Also, since they’re relatively short, I’ll add my notes on this book here:

First Reading: After Kasia’s rescue.

– The main character is not all that interesting. The only interesting trait is her (arguable) clumsiness, and while that’s important to the plot, even that makes it less interesting.

– We don’t understand enough about magic at this point to get the significance of her being able to read the spells and his not being able to. If he had trained her more directly and explained to her the fundamentals of normal magic, we’d understand ourselves how odd that all is and thus feel more connected.

– The work is hurt by making the Dragon so unsympathetic. His motives in bringing the girls there seem both pathetic and unseemly, and his reaction to her is so over the top that we don’t get any sense of this being important or useful. If he had been more friendly but more resigned to teaching her from the start, and in fact had even explained that to her in the beginning, the work would have moved more smoothly.

– A longer introduction in the village would have worked better, too. We would have gotten a better sense of the main character and the people in the village, which would have been important when the main character ran off to save them. Twice. Even Kasia, her best friend, is a hollow character for the most part, although with some interesting aspects.

– So far, it’s not terrible but is on the low end of “Meh”. It’s a book that, for me, I’d be rushing through just to finish it and be able to move on to something more interesting at this point. Not a good start, although there’s nothing obviously wrong or bad about it.

Second reading: After rescuing the Queen

– What’s with the new trend of hyper-competent and typically female leads? With almost no training, she can do all of these things that were considered impossible, based on the work of another hyper-competent female character. She never seems to fail at anything. This is not entertaining.

– I’m not sure what the point of the aborted sex scene is. If the story had shown a gradual getting together of them and a softening towards each other, it would work as a romantic subplot, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. So does the shared magic just make people want to have sex with each other?

– Marek and the Falcon are deliberately presented as unsympathetic characters. So we have little reason to want them to survive the attack.

– On the plus side, it’s fairly standard fantasy. But I don’t care for any of the characters, and the plot, characters and world are, again, not properly developed. This seems to be a trend in modern science-fiction and fantasy.

– Unless something changes, the door is wide open for Jemisin’s work. Can she storm through it? Only time will tell.

Third Reading: Up until the new war.

– So, she has to face the tests, and she can’t do magic that way. My God, might we have some toil, some struggle, as she has to find a new Jaga book or something similar to show them that she can do magic? How is this going to … oh, she just uses that earthquake spell. Problem solved. Sigh.

– So much for court intrigue, with it only being one minor scuffle.

– If Marek and the Falcon wanted her to do things, and had an idea for what she should do, why didn’t either of them talk to her about it? Marek can credibly be said to have left it up to the Falcon, but the Falcon is either clearly corrupted or clearly an idiot for how he approached it.

– And then she quickly convinces them that going through court intrigue is the wrong way to go, anyway. So what was the point?

– Ditched the King and that whole minor subplot of the remarriage rather quickly, which could have provided a reason for Marek and the Falcon to feel the need to move right now. Also Sigmund is suddenly introduced with him having to go off to war to get the throne. Maybe.

– Finding that book there was awfully convenient. Way too many things are way too convenient.

– Things are moving too quickly for us to really care about what’s going on, and there are no interesting characters to at least follow. It’s a fairly standard fantasy work, but that actually really hurts it. There’s nothing new here and nothing interesting either.

Fourth reading: To end

– The death of Sigmund that kicks off everything else happens too quickly after it is set-up. Much of the book is this way, reminding me of stories I write where I get tired of the set-up and rush to the end, but most of the book does this.

– The protagonist is still too hyper-competent to be interesting, although suffers some setbacks in the battle.

– Massive combat and drama that we didn’t need and doesn’t seem to really matter.

– Because we have little explanation or build-up to the Woods and its origins, the end is a bit of an infodump.

– The romance is perfunctory; there is no reason to think it actually developed for any reason and it’s brought in at various times just to be there.

– The denouement is a bit long and also doesn’t really wrap things up that well.

– The best thing I can say about the book is that there’s not much to say about it. This is not a ringing endorsement.

– Top spot is still wide open.

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