After a spectacular start, Naomi Novik's Temeraire saga gradually lost steam and then everything went downhill for a number of installments. So much so that I was considering abandoning the series altogether. The latest volume, Blood of Tyrants, though a far cry from the quality that made the first four books such memorable reads, was nevertheless an improvement that put this train back on track and readers could now look forward to what should be a compelling finale.
So when I first learned that the author was taking a break from the Temeraire series and had written a totally different novel, I wasn't particularly thrilled. But then I remembered how Novik had wowed me with "Seven Years from Home," her contribution to the Warriors anthology edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. Definitely one of the anthology's highlights, that short story had shown us a grittier side of Novik and a different writing style which boded well for things to come after the Temeraire saga was brought to a close. Hence, I was hoping that this new project would be, in style and tone at least, something akin to that excellent short fiction piece.
When the blurb for Uprooted was released, that hope died immediately. I don't think I've ever read a cover blurb that was this uninspiring. I received an ARC a few weeks later and just put it on the pile, having no intention to read it in the near future. But then rave reviews started to appear online. And they kept coming. This being something by Naomi Novik, of course I was going to read it. So when the time came to select the few books I'd bring with me on my hiking trip in the Canadian Rockies, Uprooted ended up in my suitcase.
Right off the bat, let me stress the fact that Uprooted is quite different from anything else Naomi Novik has ever written. Unfortunately, it's not the grittier side of the author that's showcased throughout the book. Far from it, actually. So far from it that it makes the Temeraire installments feel like the bloodiest grimdark offerings in comparison. Everything is steeped in folk stories and fairy tales and is told in a decidedly goody-two-shoes voice.
I'm sad to report that Uprooted is the most boring novel I've read in years. Normally, I would have quit before reaching a hundred pages or so. But I was stuck in various national parks in the Rockies with very limited reading material, so I had no choice but to persevere and hope it would get good at some point. That never happened. . .
Here's the blurb:
“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.” Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life. Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood. The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her. But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.
The worldbuilding seemed almost childish at first, but showed more depth as the story progressed. As I mentioned, the tale is rooted in what appears to be Slavic fairy tales and legends. Hence, most of the storylines always seem a bit familiar, even if they're not. It appears that Novik chose to take the path of least resistance, for so many plotlines are quite predictable and have no emotional impact whatsoever when their resolution come.
The characterization is bland and unimaginative; more or less as bad as it gets, unfortunately. I found Agnieszka to be a dull and insipid main protagonist. She cries in probably half the chapters and her thought-process is occasionally akin to that to a teenage girl having her period. In a few short chapters, she managed to join Sansa Stark and Briony Eddon as my most hated SFF female characters of all time. The supporting cast is comprised of various lackluster men and women who fail to bring this tale to another level. This book would likely have benefited from having a number of different points of view. Unfortunately, the entire tale is told in the first person, so we only have Agnieszka's often vapid voice to go by. Having the Dragon's POV would probably have brought a certain balance to the narrative and definitely would have added more depth to the story. But it was not to be. . .
I won't even try to mince words here. The pace is absolutely atrocious throughout. You go through chapter after chapter in which little or nothing occurs. And when the tale finally picks up toward the end, having failed to capture the imagination early on, it just doesn't deliver.
When the quality of the Temeraire novels began to go down the crapper, some people started believing that Naomi Novik was a one-trick pony, that every single volume followed the same kind of recipe, and which explained why they were becoming a bit repetitive and dull. "Seven Years from Home" made me believe that this wasn't the case. However, Uprooted truly did me in, and now I'm not sure what to believe anymore. As bad as some of those Temeraire got, they were never sleep-inducing affairs like Uprooted. It just felt like the author was milking the series' popularity for all it was worth and that the proliferation of sequels was just a way to keep the saga alive past the point where it should have ended. For the life of me, I'll never understand how Uprooted garnered such rave reviews. Obviously those readers saw something in the book that totally eluded me and it's all good. Enjoying or disliking a book is a very subjective process, after all. Personally, I hated it from start to finish, and hated the fact that I had no choice but to go through it anyway.
I've never had a problem with Novik's prose in the past. She usually writes well and fluidly. For some reason, Uprooted is full of adjectives and adverbs that really bog down the narrative and I found that extremely annoying.
All in all, even though I've been looking for something, anything, I can find no redeeming quality that could somehow save Uprooted. As I mentioned, it was by far the most boring novel I've read in many a year. I hate to write such negative reviews and would have simply quit reading this book if I'd been home. But I was forced to go on, which explains why I probably feel even more frustrated than I should.