Book Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Cropped Cover of Uprooted

Agnieszka, called Neshka by everyone she loves, is a small-town girl. She hasn’t much left her little village, and she never really wants to. Her family has been in the Valley for ages, and something just feels right about the place.

Except the Wood.

The Wood always lurks at the edge of the line of little towns that stretches down the river. It is malicious, always waiting to gobble up wandering people who get too close, as it swallowed the runaway Queen some years before. But it has been contained for as long as Neshka and her village can remember – about 100 years – by the presence of the Dragon.

“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.”

Still, the Dragon is lord of the Valley in this pseudo-Polish feudal world, and the only tribute he demands from the villagers is a girl to serve him. Every ten years he selects a new girl, and at the end of the ten years, the girl returns, educated and worldly, and promptly leaves the Valley, armed with a sack of coin for her dowry. Families with girls born in a Dragon year learn not to love them too closely as children – it is too hard to lose them so utterly. Neshka, constantly stained, always finding trouble, knows she should be more concerned about the Dragon’s choosing ceremony, but finds it hard. After all, everyone in the Valley knows that Kasia will be chosen.

It is Kasia who is raised by her parents to serve a nobleman, Kasia who is beautiful, graceful and kind. And Kasia to whom Neshka clings most closely, in spite of their inevitable separation when it comes time for the Dragon to choose a girl.

So it comes as a shock that after a quick and derisive exchange with the Dragon, Neshka finds herself in the Tower where the Dragon lives, facing ten years of servitude that she has in no way prepared for. Utterly alone and very confused, Neshka nevertheless tries to make the best of it, even finding her way into the library.

Ready for a Beauty and the Beast retelling yet? I was, but Novik doesn’t play into our hands on this. In the Tower, the Dragon reveals he had to choose her – it was the law. In a world where the number of wizards a country has can make the difference in the ever-present threat of war, Neshka has the capacity to use magic, and the Dragon is required to teach her. Even if, to him, she is hopeless.

Despite his best efforts, the Dragon – or Sarkan, as is his real name – cannot make her keep clean, cannot prevent her from clumsily knocking over expensive potions, and cannot teach her to weave spells in the same measured way he does. She is useless to him and his battle against the Wood. Until she finds a spellbook of Baba Yaga’s hidden in his library.

Neshka finds her magic here, less structured and more organic than Sarkan’s. It’s good timing, as he is called away to fight a monster in a neighboring region. And the Wood uses his absence to attack. It’s been biding its time since its last incursion when it swallowed an entire town, and the madness and horror that it unleashes on Neshka’s village are only a starting point. Because creatures come out of the Wood, creatures made of the Wood itself, and they take Kasia. Neshka is determined to bring her back, despite the Dragon’s warnings, and her rescue efforts change everything. Because if a village girl could be brought back from the clutches of the Wood – what about the lost Queen, held there for all these years?

The answer is different than anyone expects.

Uprooted is the story of the Wood, the ancient evil that operates as the villain in the story, though perhaps it wasn’t always so. So too is it the story of growing up – at one point Neshka realizes her magic will make her nearly as immortal as the Dragon, meaning she will survive everyone she knows. And of course it is the story of magic, both the intuitive, grounded magic of Baba Yaga and Neshka, as well as the learned, eloquent magic that Sarkan wields. Most of all though, it is the story of how relationships shape and ground us. Sarkan and Neshka battle through a combative beginning to a place where they can work together (and maybe more). But Kasia’s kidnapping by the Wood is what sets Neshka’s story in motion, and their friendship is the beating heart of the book. It has a taste of Frozen (where the act of true love is one sister saving the other), but without the True Love’s First Kiss drama.

Uprooted pulls from a variety of folk and fairytale traditions to weave a tale that is as engrossing as it is epic. Anchored by Neshka’s narration to the Valley and to the two people Neshka cares about most – Kasia and Sarkan – the story feels almost homey despite the epic battles the characters face.

Pair with:

  • The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King – More wizarding fantasy set in a high tower, this book – the first written by Stephen King – follows the plight of a kingdom and its noble prince while an evil wizard plots major takeover. An intricate web of plot weaving, littered with clues that you realize afterward you should have put together, this battle between good and evil is just as epic – with the stakes just as high and the ending just as satisfyingly startling – as Agnieska and the Dragon’s in Uprooted

 

  • The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker – This title brings the setting a lot closer to home: 1930s New York. In the mess of Lower Manhattan during an influx of Eastern European and Syrian immigrants, a golem created by dark Kabbalistic magic and Arabian-Nights style genie find themselves in control of their own choices. There is a constant crisis between the golem’s impulse to serve and the jinni’s unwillingness to go back to being a slave. Inspired by folklore that’s a little more off the beaten path than Uprooted, The Golem and the Jinni feels like it could fit into the same magic world that spawned the Wood – just a few hundred years later.

 

  • Wicked by Gregory Maguire – This is the book that lots of people point to as the beginning of the fairy tale retelling renaissance. Wildly successful, and only a little bit an actual fairy tale, Maguire digs deep into the Wicked Witch of the West’s past to show us a complex character that has been smoothed over as the tale is retold. That thread of revealing what is hidden in the retelling of tales connects the two – after all, the Dragon doesn’t eat the young girls he takes, despite the rumors outside the Valley, and Elphaba is not actually wicked until the talk in Oz paints her that way. The hint of romance here, too, is a satisfying thread, though it is far more central to the plot than in Uprooted. Both are great reads to look at how small choices can bring the best of friends together – or tear them apart.

 

Book Review: Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

A drawing of the three main characters of the book Nimona

Nimona is a girl who can shapeshift into a monster. Or a monster who can shapeshift into a girl. Or something more complicated than that. In any case, she shows up unannounced at supervillain extraordinaire Ballister Blackheart’s lair and declares herself his sidekick. He is… not amused. “I can’t have a kid following me around all day,” he complains, to which she gleefully responds (and shapeshifts): “I’m a shark!”

Nimona’s persistence and her incredible powers make Blackheart accept her as an ally and together they set to work discrediting the powerful Insitute of Law Enforcement and Heroics. It’s Nimona’s dream come true – though it might take some getting used to for the both of them.

Nimona, it seems, has more of a taste for the violence of a traditional supervillain – she wants to kill the King and take over or kill Ballister’s archnemesis and be unequaled! But Ballister loathes the mess and waste of death and violence. Still, during their first evil plot together, Ballister runs into said archnemesis, Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin. It’s complicated. They had been friends once, back when Ballister was another hopeful hero recruit at the Institute. And then Ambrosius has shot his arm off, and Ballister was forced to become a villain (because what Champion of Law Enforcement and Heroics only has one arm?)

Nimona doesn’t know any of this though, and seeing their plan on the brink of collapse, she takes off to “contain” the situation in her own special way. Ballister is not amused.

But then the Institute decides that Nimona might be too dangerous, that she doesn’t fit into their carefully scripted role for the villain, that perhaps she is too powerful (a thought that the Director of the Institute doesn’t much like).

Meanwhile, Ballister stumbles upon a way to limit Nimona’s powers, something that terrifies Nimona. She’s never been unable to shift, never been out of control of her powers. But none of the stories she’s told Ballister about where she came from made sense, and as a man of science, Ballister is more than a little nervous about her seemingly unlimited magical abilities.

Still, the Institute is up to something terrible, and Nimona and Ballister are the only ones who can stop it. If only each could trust the other to really have their back.

A graphic novel with simple art style for first-time graphic novel readers, but plenty of details for those who are into the genre, Nimona blurs a lot of lines. Good and evil, power and corruption, monster and human, friend and enemy. Context matters here, and the twists of the story – written over a long span during its webcomic days – show that our smallest choices can affect which side we stand on.

Complicated and tense relationships between fangirl-ish and insecure (yet super powerful) Nimona; scientific, conflicted pacifist Ballister; and the melodramatic, changeable, yet good-hearted Sir Ambrosius fill in what could be a simplistic story. The almost-familiar plot gives a lot of solid pegs to hang questions on – is violence ever ok? Is revenge? Are good intentions enough?

Nimona is a quick-read, perfect for teens that are increasingly busy with homework and extracurriculars.

Pair With:

  • The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett – Both books have a bent toward the surprising, and a healthy dose of the magical to balance out the mundane. A traditional text novel, The Wee Free Men is a humorous take on a young girl’s growing up – and finding out she’s a witch. The Elf Queen has stolen Tiffany’s baby brother, and may also be plotting to overthrow the mortal realm. She teams up with the tiny, blue Scottish fairyland creatures the Wee Free Men – the only clan to cast of the Elf Queen’s influence. Another story about a young girl and her magic, this story fleshes out many of the questions that Nimona raises.
  • Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson – Can’t get enough shapeshifting? Really loved Stevenson’s artwork? Then I am happy to let you know that you can get both fixes with the Lumberjanes series. The first comic finds a group of five young women at a summer camp for “hardcore lady types,” and these girls certainly fit the bill (even Ripley’s love for adorable animals. But after they witness a woman turn into a bear, they start to search the woods for clues as to what’s really happening.

See if your library has it here.

Audiobook Review: Museum of Thieves

Museum of Thieves Book Cover

I can’t be alone in searching IMDB to find out who starred in my favorite things. I recently did this for Dragon Age. One of the voice actor’s in that series – Claudia Black, who voices Morrigan – branched into recording children’s audiobooks. Her first voiced series is The Keepers by Lian Tanner. Conveniently, my library owned the first book, The Museum of Thieves, and I have a long enough commute to crank through it. I’m guilty of sitting in my car longer than necessary, just to squeeze in a few more minutes.

Museum of Thieves is a great middle grade pick in the line of The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman or The Sixty-Eight Rooms by Marianne Malone – magic and mystery abound at quite a fast pace. The cast of characters is vast but memorable, and made more memorable by the distinctive voices used by Claudia Black. We are introduced to the city of Jewel, and to Goldie, a 12-year-old girl who wants nothing more than to finally be Separated. Children in Jewel are vastly overprotected, literally always attached to an adult or their bed via a chain tied to their wrists.

Jewel is a city that has resolutely pushed every dangerous thing away. Dogs might bite. Standing water might carry the plague. Children alone might get carried off by pirates. Little by little, Jewel has conquered their little corner of the world. But wildness will not be tossed aside so easily. In the tiny Museum of Dunt live all the wild forces that Jewel refuses to believe still exist. Most of all, inside the Museum is magic.

As Goldie learns about the Museum and the uses of wildness, she also learns of a truly terrible plan to destroy Jewel. Only the Keepers of the Museum can save the city – but only if the terrified citizens of Jewel will let them.

A very compelling book to listen to, with characters that leap out of the speakers. Black draws out characters both lovable and despicable – keep an ear out for Guardian Hope and Sinew, whose tones are unmistakable.

If my library didn’t already own this, we would soon.

UPDATE: Random House has a site for The Keepers Trilogy with games, character bios, and even lessons from the Keepers! Well worth a look at this companion site.

Book Review: The Red Pencil

The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney

I had a resolution to read more diversely this year, and I’m really pleased I started out with The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney. It surprised me on a number of levels, but really hit home.

The book is told in poems, written in the voice of Amira, a 12-year-old girl who lives in Darfur with her parents. She explores growing up in a conservative village, the confusion of understanding war as a child, and the harsh realities of the genocide in Darfur. Together, these themes could make the book too heavy for its intended audience of children, but the first-person perspective of a child, along with the poetic form, help to distance the trauma just enough that I don’t feel uncomfortable recommending this to the right middle grader.

I’ll admit that I cried several times throughout the book. There is real trauma in Amira’s life – trauma that is both inflicted and dealt with in the plot of this short book. Characters are fleshed out in small aside poems, along with Amira’s own thoughts on the people in her life.

What I liked most about this book was that it didn’t expect readers to understand the situation before beginning – a short glossary of terms in the back includes some of the cultural terms Amira uses, but also words like “Janjaweed,” a concept that any adult might have trouble explaining. Readers walk with Amira through her dawning understanding of the change in her world, and so we are allowed to join her at the end of the book, as she takes the first steps toward something new.

The author, Andrewa Davis Pinkney, will be visiting Pittsburgh next month as part of the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Kids Series. Follow the link for more information.

On Things I’ve Read: The Book Thief

This book has been on my reading list for a very long time. I started it once, but had to return it. I decided it would be my pre-semester read for this term. It was worth it.

The book got a lot of attention for its use of Death as a narrator, and rightly so. The portrayal of Death was unique and engaging. True to his form as protagonist, I even rather liked Death. I wanted him to be able to make the choices, rather than being driven to them by humans – and in this case WWII. And I trusted him as a narrator.

But the book was about a little girl named Liesel Meminger, and her life on Himmel Street in a town near Munich. It only takes about 5 years to unfold, but the narrative style, the backdrop against which her story is highlighted, and the depth and complexity of her own story make it seem like an entire lifetime was packed in there. At around 550 pages, The Book Thief was just enough. I neither wanted more nor less, which is rare in a book.

The characters that make up Liesel’s story – lemon-haired Rudy, Papa with the Silver eyes, the ghostlike Ilse Hermann – are given life precisely because of the way that Death and Liesel describe them. They are brilliant and foolish in turn, completely believable, and lovable.

*Spoiler, I suppose*
One warning though – do not expect to make it through the last few chapters of the book without crying. It ends exactly like it should, in my opinion, but wrenches the heart.