“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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Tiffany Aching: The Young Witch

A while back I wrote about how Ursula K LeGuin asked the question “what was the young great wizard like?” But as far as I know, up until Terry Pratchett no one had asked “what was the young great witch like?” There are young women who become great witches, but that tends to happen after the book is over (as in Diana Wynne Jones’ The Spellcoats, and in adult novels like The Mists of Avalon childhood is merely a prelude).

Terry Pratchett’s witch novels are held together by the glue that is Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Og. They are two old ladies you know already, who in the world of Discworld are witches. We know what Nanny Og was like when she was young (she had an unknown number of husbands starting quite quick), but what was Granny Weatherwax like?

She was like Tiffany Aching. Tiffany Aching has “first sight and second thoughts,” a clever way of saying that she actually pays attention to what she sees, then acts instead of just reacting. Sometimes. Other times, she just does what seems natural and gets in enormous trouble for it.

When I say that Terry Pratchett asked the complementary question “what was the young great witch like,” he didn’t just put a great wizard in a dress or something ridiculous. Tiffany’s journey is very different than a young man’s journey would be. She is, for example, far more connected to people than the transient young man who becomes a wizard–to her past, to her family, to her land. But she too is sometimes blinded with arrogance, certain she can do anything (and forced to pay the price). She too must leave home and come back changed.

Yet, Tiffany’s greatness is of a different sort. In “The Shepherd’s Crown,” someone (I won’t say who) asked Granny Weatherwax why, when she could have done anything, when she could have ruled kingdoms and uprooted mountains, she had instead lived in a tiny village, in a cottage. Granny Weatherwax never even learned to spell. She answered that she didn’t want to do any of that. She just wanted her cottage, her place to rule and keep together.

That’s what ultimately set the witches of Terry Pratchett’s world apart from the great wizards of fantasy. Wizards seek to shake the world itself, to be the men who wrought change across time itself. Witches see the world inside every person, and they shift and shake those thousands of worlds instead of the big one. And both are needed, in the world of fiction and in our own world.

 

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 Tiffany Aching and Autobiographical Writing

 

 

I once read an interview with Terry Pratchett where he was asked if he put real people into his characters. “I certainly hope so,” he answered. He wanted his characters to breathe, to feel so alive you wouldn’t be surprised to run into them doing their shopping. In fact, he wanted them to be people you actually have run into doing their shopping. That’s how real they needed to be.

Tiffany Aching is, I suspect, as close as Sir Pratchett ever came to writing a truly autobiographical character. Tiffany read the dictionary through at a young age, just like Sir Pratchett says he did. She grew up poor on the Chalk, just like Sir Pratchett.

Something I’ve noticed while reading through fantasy award lists and classics is that there are still not enough girls. It’s still dominated by boys on their adventures. Diana Wynne Jones said that children’s books tend to be centered around a neutral character–and in our literary culture, a boy can more easily be neutral than a girl. So, boys continue to be more common then girls.

That’s why a really good girl protagonist in a big children’s and young adult series is a gift. I don’t mean the dystopian warrior girls who are all practically interchangeable these days–those books are good, but they’re not GREAT. And the Tiffany Aching books are GREAT, and they’re about a girl whose reaction to a monster in the lake when she was 9 was to use her brother as bait and hit the thing with a frying pan.

The world needed Tiffany. Thousands, if not millions of girls will love Tiffany. And I can muster nothing but gratitude for Sir Pratchett’s gift of her to us.

Ankh-Morpork!

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The city breathes.

Terry Pratchett once said that “I hope Ankh Morpork feels like a city that’s still there after you close the book,” and to that end he has wandered the damp alleyways of the horrible and wonderful city in over a dozen novels.

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Ankh-Morpork is sustained by an endless sacrifice of the countryside, where farmers “live their whole lives for Ankh-Morpork without ever seeing the city.” The River Ankh is so polluted that, when you throw puppies in it to drown, they walk to the side. Fortunes are made on people’s piss and shit, when a special man sees that what the city lacks is sewers, and what it needs is people to make things smell better.

DO NOT EAT IT

DO NOT EAT IT

The people of the city began as petty-minded incarnations of everything bad in human nature (as seen in Guards, Guards!, the first Ankh-Morpork book). But as Terry warmed to humanity wised up to life, it became or fonder city. There’s a place for everyone in Ankh-Morpork, the kind and the nasty, the foolish and the brave. There’s the safety of the patriarchs, and the determined presence of no-nonsense matriarchs. The city is a little bit London, a little bit New York, and totally itself. Throw magic into the mix of that sort of city and, well, anything can and does happen.

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The whole thing is presided over by the most efficient and potentially benevolent form of government: the despotism of Lord Vetinari. It’s kind of like if everyone in Game of Thrones gave up the power struggles and just let someone like Varys, Littlefinger, or Tywin Lannister get on with ruling a city. Vetinari is a pragmatic liberal (when it suits him), who has thrown open the doors of the city to anyone wishing to enter. He and Ankh-Morpork are so deeply linked, it is impossible to imagine one without the other.

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In generations to come and long after contemporary readers are dead, when these novels surface on dusty library shelves in their battered, ugly sleeves, someone will pick up one of these books at random. And Ankh-Morpork will be there, with its thieves leaving receipts, its troll and werewolf watchmen (and women), its incremental gains in banking, postage, and sewage—and its people. Its horrible, nasty, drunken, amiable, kindly, suspicious, foolish, greedy, open, accepting, small-minded, pragmatic, stubborn

The Long War

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It’s fun to play with “what ifs,” and this series is a doozy. What if there were an infinite number of Earths, with an infinite number of evolutionary permutations? What if (almost) anyone could go to them, with minimum effort?

Watching Pratchett and Baxter spin out the ramifications of these two relatively simple ideas is a pure joy. How would different countries react? How would individuals react? How would parallel Earths be worked into pre-existing national structures and conceptions? 

And that’s when the book’s focused on our Earth. Once you get out into those evolutionary permutations, there’s all kinds of new questions. What else could have evolved? What kind of intelligent life? How would we recognize it? How would we deal with it? Could we deal with it? How would they adapt to new environments?

Personally, my favorite part is the “Jokers,” worlds that have evolved in super weird ways, like being populated entirely by butterflies.

It’s not Pratchett’s usual satire, and there are moments when the pioneer spirit becomes a bit grating. But it’s great fun.

“The Long Earth” and Brits Writing America

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Outsiders, so the theory goes, have the best perspective. They can never belong, but that makes them the best observers, the viewers of detail, the people who can really understand.

That’s why you get some great novels by Brits about America, and some great books by Americans about Britain. Take “Notes on a Small Island,” which was selected by Brits as the best representation of Modern Britain, and which was written by an Iowa cornboy. Or “American Gods,” a gorgeous dive into America’s mythological soul written by a British transplant.

“The Long Earth” is theoretically a science fiction novel, and the scifi elements are fantastic. It takes the basic idea that there are an infinite number of copies of Earth, with an infinite evolutionary variety, and that people can easily move from one to another, and it explores the various implications and permutations of that idea.

But really, “The Long Earth” is about America’s frontier mentality. It’s about the need to find out what’s beyond the horizon. It’s about starting over, discovering, learning. It’s about the quest for quiet in a world that–no matter what time you live in–always seems too loud.