I just this minute finished Naomi Novik's Uprooted, which I got from Netgalley for review. (Thank you, Netgalley!) I loved His Majesty's Dragon, but drifted away from Temeraire after a couple of books; my attention wasn't quite held. Here comes her new series, and I was excited.
I've been trying to write this review for a couple of days, actually, even though I hadn't finished the book. But I want my review to be clever and charming and touching and everything wonderful, and I can't find a way to adequately convey how much I loved and adored this book, so I'm going to go with bullets.
So: Things I Loved About Uprooted (In No Particular Order)
1. Let's start with Kasia, because the book does. Everyone in the Valley assumed that the wizard would choose Kasia when he came back, as he does every ten years, to take a girl away to his tower. Kasia is beautiful and accomplished. Nieshka, our narrator, is chosen instead. She's taken away from her village and family and her best friend, and as her new life grows, you expect her one to recede in the narrative.
But no, her best friend Kasia, maybe the person she loves most in the world, doesn't disappear conveniently as Nieshka moves on to bigger things. She is a pull, a motivator, an ally. Nieshka will risk everything for Kasia, and she is asked to.
2. A totally separate thing to love that also has to do with Kasia is the number of characters in this story who could have been the protagonists. If you wrote a book from Kasia's point of view--where her best friend is whisked away, but reappears when our protagonist is in danger and then they have adventures together--this would be a fabulous book. Nieshka is the center of the larger story, and she's telling this one, but hers is NOT the only story. This is one of the many things in this book that I always want to see in books and so rarely do. Marek, the prince, has his own story that he is living, and you could tell the whole thing from inside the capital, too. This isn't one story, it's a score of them woven perfectly together.
3. Something that's bothered me in most fiction I consume for a very long time is how the notion of what is right versus what is expedient is often painted as black and white. There is the Moral High Ground, where people are Good and don't let their side down, never give up, fight to the death (though rarely does it come to that for our main characters!). The people who want to compromise are always slimy politicians, so worried about how they'll look that they never do the Right Thing. The real world is so much grayer than that.
This is handled so beautifully here. When Prince Marek insists they push forward in the fight against the malevolent magic of the Wood, he may be right or he may be wrong, but he doesn't seem irrationally shortsighted. When Nieshka sees the war with their neighbors as wasteful and unnecessary--which it is! and pointless!--it is clearly pointed out that this may well be, but the enemy cannot be relied upon to think the same thing. While war shouldn't exist, you can't will it into not being by simply pretending it isn't there. You need another plan.
4. I call this one the Perfect Knowledge Problem, which also comes up a lot in books I read. The Right Thing To Do is not always easy, but in most stories it's easy, at least, to discern. You know what the Heroic Act is, if you can just bring yourself to do it, or survive it. This is a book full of imperfect knowledge, where it's often impossible to tell which act is the heroic one and which is foolhardy. And often enough, the characters choose wrong.
5. And they're always a dozen steps behind! This should be frustrating, but it's not--it's so realistic, so brutally perfect. Every single character here is doing the best they can with the information and motivations they have. Every one of them is trying hard to do what they perceive to be good. Without exception. And everything is, of course, still a mess, because perceptions of good differ, and people have imperfect knowledge, and things don't always come out the way you planned. Life is messy.
Luckily Nieshka is good at messy. When the Wood becomes more dangerous, she finds the magic (oh, the magic! The world of magic here!) to fight it. When politics are needed, she tries to learn them. Mostly, she just pushes on, past her limitations, holding on to her friends.
I loved this book. Loved. It was a delight. I worried, at one point, when the scene changed, that we were going to get into a Slimy Politicians and Political Machinations story, but, while those factors are not entirely absent, it never becomes a turn-off. This book contains good against evil, and man against man, but those are not the same battles. I can't tell you how satisfying it was to read a book where everyone was doing their best, where even the people who are chasing our heroine with an army are truly trying, with all their resources, to do their own version of the Right Thing.
Okay, here's where I say it wasn't flawless. Much as I loved Kasia, she was kind of a cypher, more a role than a character. (I think this was done for a reason, because there was a bit of mystery about her, and I'm hoping there will be a sequel from her point of view.) I wish that Nieshka had connected a little better to a lot of the secondary characters, because while they were believable and served the story well, I wanted a bit more of a sense of them outside of their roles. The magic system was fascinating, but mostly described in metaphors, which made complete sense, but again, I wish it had been a bit more concrete in some of the details. If you need me to pick nits, I can.
But I loved it. Loved loved loved. I want to read it again for the first time. I want to read another one. I'm going to go back for more Temeraire just because I can't not at this point. This book was wonderful.