Monday, June 08, 2015

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Naomi Novik's Uprooted is a book for a reader who wants—I mean really, really deep in their heart of hearts—to dance a dance they know every step of to a well-played song that they can sing along with immediately.

I recognize the songs Uprooted is singing and I respect the skill with which they are sung. But this book will do best with long-time epic fantasy readers who came to hear their old favourites and not think too hard about why they like them. It's a comfortable story—not in its content—but its tropes and execution of those tropes.

My disappointment comes from being a reader who wants a reply to things, not a reconstruction of them. Because when a text is focused on lovingly recreating something, it doesn't seek to improve it.

Uprooted goes digging for memories of Diana Wynne Jones, Susan Cooper, Tolkien, and Peter S. Beagle. But about halfway through, I became aware of something uncomfortable in Uprooted's worldview.

Every woman who performs traditional femininity is either an antagonist, incapable of defending herself, inhuman, transformed into something inhuman, or killed. Women who enjoy nice dresses don't get out of this book unscathed. Women in traditional positions of feminine power—healers or nurses, for example—are also treated antagonistically by the text.

First, to give the text the benefit of the doubt, let's examine Uprooted's comments as being more cultural than gender performative. In a refusal to adopt the clothing customs outside her home, Agnieszka provides a role model who doesn't attempt to pass. She feels pride for her culture, her beliefs, and she rediscovers the power of that culture through the magic of Jaja. A magic that is indecipherable to outsiders like Sarkan and Father Ballo. (It does appear that the narrative's two most vocal of Jaja's doubters are male, but the court wizards as a group disdain the way Agnieszka performs magic. She must first overcome their negative view of her and prove herself a witch. She's never simply accepted by anyone at court on first meeting, but more on this later.)

While at court, Agnieszka finds comfort in the books of magic practitioners from her valley. They are the magic she recognizes, the ones that are most comfortable for her to use. She has a language difficulty in using the court-recognized magic. There are small spells—cantrips—she can use and does, but it's when she adapts them to the valley-method that her spells are their most successful.

Agnieszka's magic is a power that not even Sarkan—who has lived near the valley for decades—fully comprehends by the end of the book. He is able to access and use it via Agnieszka's assistance, but it's never really his. (He cannot access or use it without assistance unless he agrees to convert. It's worded as "setting down roots," but it is written as cultural conversion.) Her magic is what continually saves the day. It's what makes the greatest feats of the story possible.

Towards the end of the novel, Agnieszka has taken Sarkan's place as the one who will instruct those who have the gift of magic. It's implied she'll teach them the magic of the valley versus the magic of the court. She's chosen to help nurture this culture that she loves. She's decided there's nothing of interest for her outside the valley.

Taken at its surface expression, this narrative says "Feel pride for your roots and your culture. It will always serve you best. You're the only one who can use it."

That is an important thing to say to children of immigrants. Many of us come from immigrant families. For example, my family lost the link to my grandparents's language because our first generation born in Canada wasn't interested in learning it.

But here's my concern about professing that "you are the only one who can." Being a marginalized person who won't acknowledge other people could understand their culture is just as dangerous as being a majority who refuses to try to understand other people and their cultures. A majority converting to a minority viewpoint is the same as a minority converting to a majority viewpoint when they are both happening by force.

Cultural narrative aside—and I do think that it's valuable to have a narrative that encourages pride in one's roots—perhaps the textual execution could've relied on something other than the narrator's clothing and appearance versus the clothing and appearances of other women? Maybe it could have been an evil wood-king? (Instead of an evil queen who becomes evil because if you try to marry into other cultures they will inevitably betray you because you're different from them.) Maybe just a few of the women who enjoyed performing femininity in a traditional manner could've not been antagonists, reduced to being someone's mom (did Agnieszka's mother even get a proper name?), or transformed into something inhuman?

I've been actively looking this year for texts that valourize kindness, and Uprooted doesn't. This is not a book about empathy and compassion. It's not a book of equal compromise. It's adversarial. This story validates change from everyone else—waiting for the world to acknowledge you've always been right. It's critical to have stories that encourage us to grow, but how can you grow if your narrative is that your way is the secret best way and it's just been misunderstood by the majority?

Also when your narrative is that you're never wrong, you're excluded from having to obey certain rules. Like consent.

In the midst of Uprooted are two "love" scenes. Both scenes have Agnieszka as the aggressor—she either gets caught up in magic and magically undoes Sarkan's jerkin or she goes into his room and magically makes his trousers vanish. A sexually empowered female character is great. But Sarkan doesn't consent to these actions. In the second scene, he is not asked if he wants her. He is asked if he doesn't want her. He says "no." But in a way that makes it imply consent.

If someone breaks into a room, kisses the occupant awake, straddles them, and then demands a confession under duress from them that they don't want the person to leave... that's non-consensual. It's the casual no really means yes that gets slipped to us all the time in movies and television.

This doesn't cease to be an issue because Agnieszka identifies as a woman. And every relationship—sexual or not—is a combative act in Uprooted. It's about winning someone over or convincing them they were wrong. We can argue this is a fact of being marginalized, but it's not just the a viewpoint of a character who is marginalized, because it is not only Agnieszka who does it. It's the worldview of the text.

Take the friendship that is being praised by most readers. Agnieszka and Kasia only build a real, loving friendship after a magic spell—that summons the truth of the world—reveals how much these two women have secretly hated each other. Why do they hate each other? Because apparently the truth of this world is founded on internalized misogyny.

And that's what is eating the heartwood of Uprooted. A reliance on the adversarial and toxic trope of "I'm not like other girls." On the surface, this concept sounds empowering. But it's not. It undermines its own attempt to say there isn't a correct way to girl by reducing any character who performs traditional femininity to simplistic antagonists only there to thwart the narrator.

There's a section about a countess who "befriends" Agnieszka and then spends three days mocking her while she doesn't understand she's being mocked. At this point we have already been shown that Agnieszka doesn't fit in. That she isn't being accepted. Why does the only person who appears to be kind to her have to turn out to be a secret advisory?

Because the world of Uprooted has a very narrow view of what is acceptable/heroic/worthy behaviour.

Cultures don't die because we forget them. They die because we—the people of that culture—refuse to let them grow and adapt as the world around us changes. That doesn't mean bunkering down in our valleys and feeling confident we alone are the most right people who know the secret best ways to live. It's giant world. It's not possible for everything in it created by someone who isn't us to be useless.

Which might be the character arc someone who isn't the narrator of Uprooted. Maybe Kasia—except it was stated from the beginning that she wasn't going to remain in the valley. It also wasn't the character arc of Solya, because all he learned was that he wasn't going to win over Agnieszka so he should redirect his creeping elsewhere. (Personal boundaries are not a thing well understood by Uprooted's magicians.) It's possible Sarkan learned to accept the validity of other cultures. Or it's possible he's equally trapped by the power of the valley, and is simply less willing to be content about it.

It's a staggering lack of measurable character growth for a book that textually states the importance of growing and changing. Not that the book itself has nothing to say or isn't enjoyable. But I found it ultimately disappointing, because there's a difference between someone growing in power and growing as a person.

Is it possible to read Uprooted without the problematic subtext getting in the way? Yes. Absolutely. Novik has an eye for physical detail and an ability to present a solid-looking world. If you're not a close reader—not everyone is—and you want a book that's comfortably familiar then you will be delighted by this one. But if you were looking for something that wants to further the genre conversation of fantasy, you're listening to the wind through the wrong forest.

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