Alright people, I had been on holiday most of September, so apologies for the lack of posts from me since, but I am back. And whilst away I have been doing a lot of reading which is what I am sharing with you today. So, fantasy novels lovers, today is your day, because here I bring you my 2p on two novels from Naomi Novik: Uprooted and Spinning Silver. Most of you, I suspect, would know this author for the series Temeraire, so let me tell you this: my first experience of reading anything from Novik was Uprooted, therefore I didn’t come to it with any baggage or expectations. In fact, I had never heard of her series and work before. It was only that because of secret Santa at work, one of my colleagues gifted me the book and I decided to give it a shot. So if you are expecting me to do comparisons between the 9 volume series and these two…Well, not gonna happen. Sorry. In fact, I can tell you already, that, as much as I am a historian and a fantasy nerd, and by proxy Temeraire should totally be my thing; I am not interested. The Napoleonic Wars have never appealed all that much to me…and I am not sure if I am willing to invest into 9 books of this stuff to figure out what is going on.
So starting with Uprooted, I must say, I very much enjoyed it. I liked the pace: I remember that was one of my earlier remarks. I found myself wanting to read more and not feeling tired or drained to keep up with the story, even if I had fallen asleep whilst reading…! I thought the entire concept of the book was nicely done, and a good way to hook you in without seeming predictable. It is a theme anyone with a general knowledge of fantasy, fairy tales and mythology would find familiar: a dark magical wood that is eating the land, of a kingdom that is very obviously based around the Lithuanian-Polish historical union. (At worst – if you didn’t get that – it is a traditional central/northern European setting). There be this wizard that protects from the evil of the forest, and the wizards takes on a girl from the neighbouring village to be his assistant, causing discomfort and turmoil in the very rural society that lives aggravated by the wood. Okay, cool, what is there not to like? Well, it all gets better by the fact that Agnieszka, the main character, who becomes the new wizard’s apprentice (Sarkan – The Dragon, and the same word for the name in Hungarian..) is a clumsy, wild-spirited girl who happens to have magical gifts. For this the Dragon is forced to pick her rather than any of the other girls in the villages, as he is supposed to train those with the gift. She is incredibly relatable. She is worried, scared, confused, upset, and unsure how to make this magic thing work. But as the story goes on, her struggle with Sarkan takes us throw a journey of, not just coming of age and facing ones fears, but epic fails and wins with crazy wonderful magic wrought in. And this is one of the things I loved about the book. The way magic is experienced and performed by people is difference, and that is where a lot of the friction between Agnieszka and Sarkan comes in – he is a book-smart wizard, she is a wing it as it come druid-like witch. Without wanting to make spoilers, I also really liked the fact that not a single character in this book, (except perhaps some of the very secondary ones in the castle), are what they seem at first. Everything evolves, everything changes, and this is very obviously necessary for survival, not just in life but particularly in these lands. From our beloved wizards, to the Prince and Kasia – Nieszka’s friend, everyone goes through a roller-coaster of character development, which many other books of the genre lack, and many other authors fail to do so smoothly. Also, I think the other part of the book I absolutely love is that an unlikely love story is introduced without feeling cheesy or invasive or in your face. And finally, well, the end. The end of the book is brilliant. Because, you see, most folk tales have a dark twist to them. And Uprooted gets pretty dark at stages. I am not 100% we could say this is a happy ending – I wouldn’t consider it so – but it is a bittersweet one, that makes a lot of sense, not just from a narrative point of view, but in terms of style and the actual setting itself: the world building process. So, as you can see, well chuffed with this.
Now, Imagine my joy when I waltz on to Waterstones after my birthday with moneys for shinnies and see that Spinning Silver is new out – and I didn’t even know it was coming! “Awesome” I thought to myself. I liked the premise, I liked the style of what I had read so far: cool, let’s rock and roll, right? Well, I am still very much making my mind up about this, and here is why. I do actually really enjoy that the story in this book is written from the perspective of not just the main characters, but also the secondary ones, and that each o their pieces fill in the gaps of what you may have missed from each others perspectives. That I really liked. And that the style of the way the characters talk changes from one another, is a very nice touch and certainly a positive thing (IMO). I like the setting still: same sort of thing as above. Here quite directly we do have a very strong reflection on the Jewish communities in the Middle Ages, I like the way this is worked into the story with soft stereotypes but also with pre and post judgements. And quite frankly, I am a big fan of strong, female characters that are not pretty blonde bombshells who have had it easy in life, or that have had terrible traumas that now make them the biggest Mary Sues in the galaxy. So, all good from that perspective. The key theme here is how the story of these three girls intertwine to tell you an extraordinary tale: a Jewish moneylender’s daughter, a duke’s daughter not pretty enough to be any good in this society, and a farm girl with an incredibly abusive father. By the powers (or seemingly lack of them) combined, little did they know they will have to figure out a way of not just saving themselves from the wicked preying of horrible people, demons and old fey alike. Once again, Novik is very good at keeping the character progression going – although I personally think that in some cases, I could call shots far easier than in Uprooted about certain people and the path that lied ahead of them, and it didn’t seem as smooth. My main concern is that, to me, it seemed this story should have had at least 100 pages less, if not even 200. As you are reading and the climax is approaching in Vysnia: the capital of the kingdom where the plans and efforts of Miryem, Irina and Wanda must culminate, you suddenly think…well hold on, I can see the end here, and I still have a lot of book to go…How is that going to pan out. And as much as the prospect is interesting, I felt the expectations were built very high and it became rather anticlimactic to have to drag myself through what to me felt like extra fluff, for the sake of it. I think it could have been tidied much earlier and neater, and in a less predictable manner…But maybe that is just me.
Perhaps the fact that I was so satisfied and delighted with Uprooted, which in comparison felt much lighter and all around smoother just stopped me from enjoying the pacing of Spinning Silver as one should…I am not sure. I mean, I will also bring into consideration that Uprooted I read on its own, whilst Spinning Silver I was reading alongside Monkey! So maybe that didn’t help either. But even so, the issues I have presented here felt strong enough for me to not end up entirely sure how I felt about the latter. Maybe, in a few weeks time after reflecting some, I will change my mind, but for the time being, Spinning Silver is great…up until the last 150 pages, whilst Uprooted is wonderful back to back.