“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.




The Temeraire Series, Indigenous People, and Leveling the Playing Field

Like the book says, “Guns, Germs, and Steel” were the three major factors that allowed in European colonization. In the Americas, European diseases decimated the local populations, and anyone who survived had only wood and stone weapons with which to fight the initial waves of conquest. In Africa, superior technology allowed Europeans to conquer the continent. And in East Asia, European weapons technology pulled ahead of Chinese tech enough for China to be defeated and humiliated in the Opium Wars.

Then Naomi Novik asked “what if everyone had dragons?” Dragons are not a purely technological innovation, they are a natural one. They grow, they aren’t built. They are bred, yes, but they can never be bred into the sort of dead end that technology can reach.

In Novik’s China, this means that the technological head start the Chinese had in the middle ages never went away. They learned how to breed dragons better than Europeans, and they kept it up.

In Africa and the Americas, this means that the native populations couldn’t be easily dominated and subdued. Sure, plague still swept through native Americans, but it was not solely responsible for the conquest of the Americas. However, when the colonizers come on boats without dragons, and the local populations have fully integrated dragons into their cultures, the European guns and steel are useless.

It’s hard for me to describe, as a history buff  and a person invested in social justice, just how awesome this is. There’s an African empire that has no interest in getting the English to abolish the slave trade, because they’re going to end it themselves by burning all the goddamn ports to the ground with effin’ dragons. There’s a sequence in which the characters journey up the coast of Africa and find that every single slave port has been destroyed in a coordinated attack.

There’s a recounting of a famous incident in which the emperor of the Inca was murdered, after being ransomed, by Europeans. In real history, the Incans attacked the Europeans, and it was a bloodbath as the Europeans shot thousands of Incans and emerged without a scratch. But add dragons on the Inca side, and suddenly the Incan bloodbath becomes dismembered Europeans.

In North America, it’s pretty ruddy hard for the early Americans to ignore and trample over the native tribes when those tribes are breeding dragons–so the colonists and the native peoples unite in their desire for independence, and produce a new fusion of a distinctly American culture.

In fact, over the course of the series, Europe is slowly revealed to be quite backward in its idea of dragons, and Europeans’ failure to integrate dragons into their society has put them at a huge disadvantage compared to the rest of the world. The Regency era was, in real history, a time when England felt itself to be the master of the world. Not so here, because they’ve kept dragons walled off from their society. They’ve lost access to a huge amount of knowledge and skill. They’ve downgraded thinking beings into animals, and they’ve suffered for it.

It’s a pretty awesome way of turning history on its head.