“Uprooted,” The Fairy Tale, and Making the Old Into Something New

“Genre fiction, as Terry Pratchett pointed out, is a stew. You take stuff out of the pot, you put stuff back. The stew bubbles on.”

The premise of “Uprooted” isn’t original. A girl is locked in a tower on the edge of a magical forest, imprisoned by a strange and powerful figure. In the kingdom outside, a queen has gone missing and the prince is searching for her.

Novik does not battle her reader’s expectations, like many writers trying to be original do now (*cough*GeorgeRRMartin*cough*). The girl escapes her tower, but not before falling in love with her captor. The queen is saved by the heroics of her prince. The forces of evil are defeated, and the forces of good triumph. She knows what she has promised the reader, and she does not scruple to give satisfaction.

But, to continue Sir Pratchett’s metaphor, there are strange spices in this particular bowl of stew. Victories are not what they appear at first (or second, or third). Every story is resolved, but no one is moving towards a destination they could have foreseen. There is more than one Beauty, more than one Beast, and with so many of them about other paths become necessary than the familiar.

The story is laced throughout with elements taken from fairy tales–not just Western ones, but often from Eastern European stories. Baba Yaga is a hugely important figure. The forest is a place of danger, and children get lost in it. There are heroic sacrifices and old-fashioned sieges.

But Novik has done something special in “Uprooted.” She has not drawn something new from the old stories–she has taken them and used them to create something different. A lot of the old stories she draws from are about the clash between civilization and nature, the order of the human word and the chaos of the natural one. Novik even uses her two main characters to represent those forces, her Dragon a person who values beauty, elegance, and order, her heroine Anieshka in constant disarray and literally unable fit nd into the carefully categorized world.

These two forces are in apparently straightforward conflict for the early parts of the story, just as short little fairy tales present the world in terms of black and white. But they soon bleed into one another, taking deep root. What exactly is human and what is not are unclear. Good people do terrible and foolish things. And at the heart of the story is a secret which obliterates the idea of pure, implacable evil altogether.

 

 

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On Arabella Strange and Book to TV Transitions

 

14201After reading “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” for the first time, I remember coming away very irritated about Arabella Strange.

I was instantly excited on finding out that Strange would be married. There were all sorts of expectations triggered by it: perhaps she would become a magician as well, or there would be some sort of epic romance. But it didn’t happen. No promises were made beyond “there is a wife,” and no promises are fulfilled. Arabella Strange had virtually no role in the story until the very end, and then she is a catalyst rather than a real player. To be perfectly frank, Mrs. Strange boring.is

indexOn reread, it seems that her role is almost conspicuously slight. She can’t have more than 15 speaking scenes in a thousand-page book. She appears often, but does very little. Her personality is repeatedly described as “charming,” and her apparently sparkling conversation draws many admirers, but we never get to read almost any of this apparently wonderful dialogue. She makes a few perceptive observations, but she is like a lost minor Austen character, a version of Elizabeth Bennett without the crackling dialogue, character arc, or opinions.

This wouldn’t be quite so conspicuous if she weren’t  one of only three major female characters. Of the others, Lady Pole vanishes for perhaps hundreds of pages at a time, and Flora doesn’t appear until almost the end of the novel. Not only is there an Arabella Strange-shaped hole in the book, there’s almost a woman-shaped hole in it too. It just feels odd.

They changed this in the TV show. A lot. Arabella Strange has a forceful personality, has her own opinions both positive and negative of other characters (she dislikes absolutely no one but Drawlight in the novel), and is possessed of fierceness and loyalty. She also, not coincidentally, has a far stronger and more lasting bond with Jonathan Strange. (Lady Pole also has a much larger role on the show, but that is due largely to plot reasons, not character ones).

Why this difference? I honestly am not sure. I can’t lie: I like Arabella Strange better on the show than in the novel. But I can’t discount the absolute fact that Susanna Clarke is way smarter than I am, and there’s no way she didn’t know exactly what she was doing with Arabella Strange. So why did she put such a boring character in such an interesting position, just to the right of the spotlight?

Why I Abandoned “Prentice Alvin”

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I couldn’t take the sexism anymore.

Bear with me: I know that the historical period Card depicted was a time when sexism was considered something closer to “common sense.” And that’s all right. George RR Martin is not sexist for writing about a time when women were chattel, and no more is Ursula K LeGuin sexist for writing about a future world where men are chattel.

The issue I had was that the main characters were sexist. REALLY sexist. The people I’m supposed to be sympathizing with. Alvin thinking men who don’t beat their wives are weak. Peggy, pursuing the “finest title any lady could aspire to. Goodwife.”

More than that, the plot itself was constructed in a way as to render women mere figures in men’s stories. The women define themselves exclusively in terms of their relationships to men. Peggy spends years learning how to authentically please men. She chooses a course of life which she hopes will lead her to the great achievement of being the woman behind the great man, rather than aspiring to greatness herself.

And it’s not just Peggy; it’s every single woman character. Married or single, their lives are about their sons, husbands, and lovers. Even the relationships between women are mere outgrowths of their relationships to men–the mother jealous of her husband’s love for her daughter, the kind woman taking in her lover’s child.

Finally, to me, this sexism left a big logic gap right at the core of the novel. The idea is that Alvin is a “maker,” someone who can create on such a level that the devil itself dogs him. But why the hell wouldn’t a “maker” be a woman? The book is all about nature and people’s natural roles, their pre-arranged destinies. A “maker” should be a woman.

Maybe the book got better later on. I gave up when Peggy arrived home in disguise. I can’t take it anymore.

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Red Prophet and the Noble Savage

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In the novel “Red Prophet,” there is a woman weaving history on her loom. She is part of an unbroken line of women, who sit and weave white thread which dyes itself, on a cloth that seems to have no beginning and will never have an ending. She came to America from Europe, when one of her ancestresses saw the fabric of the loom branch off. Her daughter is half-Native American, and her daughter weaves from the Native stronghold on the far side of the Mississippi. Because someone must be there to weave that history.

This family literally embodies history. So what of America before they came? By the logic of this magic, there was no history in America before these white women came to weave. There were just people in some fuzzy, vague past.

It can be tough for white writers to do a good job representing Native American culture. Many writers who want portray Native Americans in a positive light, like Orson Scott Card in “Red Prophet,” end up frankly botching it by falling into the trap of the “noble savage.”

Card’s Native Americans and mystical “noble savages,” literally at one with the land because they can hear the land in a way white people can’t. The Native American characters are either victimized drunks or perfect warriors. The tribes of the Native peoples, with the exception of the peripheral alternate-history Iroquois, are interchangeable. That is a far cry from the portrayal of the French, who are at all times clearly different from the Americans.

White civilization and Indian civilization are portrayed as intrinsically opposed because the white seek to subjugate nature, while the Native Americans seek to live in harmony with it–never mind the vast agricultural apparatus of native peoples, or the ancient cities that several tribes built over the centuries in Missouri and Arizona.

This isn’t to say that the book doesn’t play with some interesting ideas. Spoilers from here on out:

William Henry Harrison, most famous in real American history for not wearing a coat and catching fatal pneumonia at his inauguration, leads a massacre of a Native American city. 9000 men, women, and children die in the massacre. It turns out that they knew their fates, and that they were led to death by their Prophet. The Prophet foresaw the possible path of our history–Native Americans on reservations, their culture diluted and lost–and bartered their lives to escape it. Their one great massacre was exchanged for the various smaller massacres that litter the history of Native Americans and white Americans. Their blood bought testimony, bought magic that forced the truth of shame on the men who murdered them. It’s a strange idea, and fascinating.

Card could not portray these massacres while holding to the more dualistic principles of “Seventh Son.” After all, the men who do the murdering aren’t evil. They’re the very family we spent the previous novel growing to love. And Armor, who allied himself with the devil in the first book, is the only white man to argue for the Native Americans, and who did not participate in the massacre.

The book asks interesting questions about history and human nature–the magic of alternate history lives to perhaps its fullest potential in flawed masterpieces like “Red Prophet.”

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Seventh Son and A New Phrasing

 

 

Orson Scott Card’s “Seventh Son” made quite a few waves when it was published, winning awards and praise from the literary SF and Fantasy world. It’s a good novel, too–a couple of good characters, strong and memorable scenes, folk magic scattered across frontier America.

The integration of magic into that early America is brilliantly done. It feels organic and real, magic in every home, at every birth, touching every character. The legends of Americans famous in their time, like Ben Franklin, now include wizardry.

But I think the reason the book made so many waves is that it framed an idea in a way that had never been quite done before. The idea of good against evil, of the battle between light and dark, is of course ancient. But Card framed it in a new way–as “making” against “unmaking,” with two characters, a boy and a reverend, at the center of the struggle. Of course, there’s plenty of problems with that idea, but it nonetheless remains at the core of Western religious thought, and thus its arrival in this young adult novel makes perfect sense. And it’s a good, powerful idea, well told.

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The Shepherd’s Crown and Imperfection

 

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Tiffany Aching was clearly close to Sir Pratchett’s heart, as his last book on the Discworld was an ending (of sorts) to her story. That final book, “The Shepherd’s Crown,” is nowhere near as polished as the previous four books, and thus it is less perfect. But that really doesn’t matter.

Pratchett said that he hoped Ankh-Morpork felt like a city that kept working after you closed the book. Tiffany Aching feels exactly like that. There are loose ends, there are bits that don’t quite work and epiphanies that happen too quickly. But that doesn’t matter, because it all feels like it’ll keep going after the book ends. Not a believable change of heart? It probably wasn’t. No explanation for the magic cat? It’ll turn up. We just won’t get to read about it.

The dream of the writer is to have something keep on living in the readers. But Pratchett’s world–from the great cesspool of Ankh Morpork with its policemen and tyrant, to the high passes of Lancre, and down to the Chalk where Tiffany Aching goes to her shepherd’s hut on wheels when she wants to be alone–doesn’t even feel like it needs the readers. This ridiculous world on the back of a turtle feels like it really exists, somewhere, somehow. Deep in the souls of millions of readers, from now until who-knows-when. Because stories have power. And that is an achievement that may very well outlive us all.

On Lyra Silvertongue

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This girl is amazing.

She’s smart, she’s funny, she’s wild and glorious. She’s a delight to read about. Her reaction is never predictable, but it is always entertaining.

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For the first two books.

Then she gets boring. I remember reading the Pullman books 3 times before, and each time coming away feeling slightly bored. The brilliance of the novels is inarguable, and the characters are amazing. But, particularly in the third novel, the story starts to get wrapped up in Will–and Will just isn’t that entertaining. He doesn’t come across as vividly as the other characters. He doesn’t have the same drive, the same fire that animates everyone else. As Will becomes a more and more important character, Lyra seems to fade. By the end of the novel, she’s a pretty uninteresting adolescent.

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And Pullman didn’t earn the romance between Lyra and Will. He just didn’t–they bond enough for a decent friendship, but not for an epic Adam-and-Eve world-altering love affair.

Everything else about these books is so good. Will and the Lyra of the end of the books just don’t feel worthy of the brilliant little girl who started us on the road.