In my last installment of this series, I said that I wanted to read more sci-fi and fantasy written by women. That plan is already paying dividends, as I’ve checked off two books by authors on the list I hadn’t read before and thoroughly enjoyed both of them: Uprooted, by Naomi Novik, and The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon. Here are some short reviews and thoughts.
Uprooted, by Naomi Novik
A fantasy rooted in Russo-Polish mythology, Uprooted starts out like a fairy tale. It’s set in a kingdom of simple rural people who live at the border of a malicious, magical wood that sends monsters and other plagues to torment them. Their only protection from the Wood’s evil is a powerful sorcerer called the Dragon, who lives in a forbidding tower at the far end of the valley. He fights the monsters off every time they appear, but as the price for his aid, once every ten years the Dragon selects a young woman from one of their villages to be his servant.
When the novel opens, it’s almost time for the next choosing. Everyone knows the Dragon will pick Kasia, the bravest and most beautiful girl in all the villages – everyone including Kasia’s best friend, Agnieszka, a clumsy, tomboyish peasant girl who loves nature. But when the Dragon shows up… well, you can guess.
As I said, it begins simply enough. But from these Disneyesque beginnings, Uprooted shades seamlessly into a much darker and more grown-up story, full of sex, bloodshed, violence and death. This is especially true when you find out what happens to people who are carried off by the Wood’s monsters, in scenes that constitute serious nightmare fuel. It’s an impressive tonal shift that Novik accomplishes by carrying us along with Agnieszka’s expanding perspective, as she grows from a naive and fearful child into a powerful character in her own right. Better still, the growth adds complication in a good way: even as she learns more about how the Wood came to be, she finds herself entangled in a mundane but no less consequential power struggle at the highest levels of her kingdom.
While most of Novik’s writing is impressively polished, the last section feels rougher than the rest of the book. There are a few questions that are never fully resolved, like why Agnieszka’s magic works so differently from the other characters’, although I appreciated that the author steers clear of tiresome chosen-one cliches. Those qualms aside, this is a fantastic debut, and I’m already looking into Novik’s Temeraire series.The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon
In the near future, a man named Lou Arrendale works as a pattern analyst for a pharmaceutical company. He loves classical music, joins a fencing club in his spare time, and pines after his sparring partner Marjory. He’s also a high-functioning autistic, a member of the last generation born before medical science made it possible to eliminate autism in new babies.
The novel is written in Lou’s voice, and it’s a revelation to see the world as he sees it. Although brilliant, he’s had to painstakingly learn how to function in everyday life without frightening or upsetting anyone. He solves complicated problems with ease, but social nuances that most people instinctively grasp constitute taxing intellectual puzzles for him. Despite facing prejudice and misunderstanding, he’s built an independent life for himself, which he’s justifiably proud of.
This all changes when new management at Lou’s company decides that the special accommodations given to him and some of his co-workers, who are also autistic, are a waste of money. They pressure him to agree to an experimental treatment that they say will cure his autism, forcing Lou to confront the question of whether he wants to be “cured”. Is his condition a disability or just a different way of seeing the world? Even if the treatment works, will it still be him afterwards, or will it take away everything that makes him who he is?
When this book came up in the comments last time, one person said that it barely qualifies as sci-fi, but I don’t agree with that at all. In the world of the novel, there’s space travel, brain-altering nanotechnology, and transhumanist life-extension therapy. It’s just that it isn’t about those things. They’re the background to the story, rather than the point of the story.
After I read this book for a while, it got into my head. Lou’s way of approaching problems began to seem reasonable and normal, and “ordinary” human behavior the strange and alien phenomenon. I can’t vouch for whether this is an accurate depiction of autism (Moon has an autistic son), but either way, it’s a compelling message of perspective-shifting.