Undoubtedly five stars. What makes it so? The ability to capture my attention and hold until finished, the daze of finishing, and the desire upon finishing to flip to the beginning and start reading all over again. Sure, it has some shortcomings. But I haven’t felt like this since the first Murderbot. I was on the fence for months over this book. On the plus side, a number of my friends loved it. On the negative was the label young-adult and everything that has become shorthand for–love triangles, clothes choices, and relationship drama. But Nataliya and Jennifer sang a siren song of buddy reads, and I gave it a shot, thinking I’d read a couple chapters then set it down. Oh, no–I finished it the same day.
Why didn’t anyone tell me the lead is a Murderbot?
Objections to this book are many, and likely played a role in my hesitancy. Chief among complaints is the combination of ‘slow pace’ and ‘narrative-heavy’ style Novik uses. I, perhaps unsurprisingly given my history, loved it. The lead, Galadriel, or ‘El,’ is a conflicted, isolated young woman who has been told from her youngest memories that she’ll be responsible for death and destruction, and her magical affinity and skills seem to point her the same direction. She asks the universe for a cleaning spell; she gets one to incinerate everything in it’s path. Other magical people are aware of this and avoid her, while the mundane people just avoid her in favor of her gentle, healing mother. She’s become an outsider looking in, with only her mother having faith that her ethics are equal to her potential.
I feel like Novik and I must have read that same books as a child. Those books centered on introverted young women who felt like outsiders, heavy on the internal narrative and personal skill development and low on social situations. Definitely Robin McKinley and Patricia McKillip, with a heavy dose of fairy tale retellings. Uprooted was nice, although as I aged, found the development of relationship between the young lead and significantly older male wizard a bit too uncomfortable for modern times. It’s one of those things that makes me think we had similar tastes, though, as there was a high prevalence of the exact thing in those childhood books (Anne McCaffery, McKinley again). Now she’s taken that head-voice heroine to boarding school in A Deadly Education and I couldn’t be happier with her modern, cynical twist (Gideon, without the non-sequiturs).
So it turned out that the major detraction is actually a feature in my books. What else? When I dug around, I discovered there’s also a couple of items that provoked accusations of racism. I’ll be honest, both scenes gave me a ‘huh?’ moment on first read. But even more honestly, probably for different reasons. The mention of dreadlocks was done awkwardly, though in my case, I put it down to modern authors’ tendency to make sure they are being inclusive and Novik’s lack of describing our character’s looks. The modern Arabic language book with it’s picture of the car and people being hit didn’t make sense to me either, mostly because the school seemed intent on teaching her mass-destruction skills, not ones on the scale of three or four, and to be really honest, the only incident with cars that immediately came to mind are all the ones we’ve had lately in the U.S. at anti-45 protests.
I like to think that I’m reasonably aware of many of my short-comings and prejudices. I appreciate people might perceive it differently, I’ll throw out that both made me feel Novik was modifying her story for the audience, but in a more inclusive, albeit awkward, way.
The good stuff was everywhere: a lead character complex enough to realize some of her attitude was defensive and maladaptive, supporting characters that were developed enough to have both flaws and positive traits, a cast that included gender representation and a multinational cast, a conflict that became more about the environment than interpersonal angst, with lots of interesting magic and creatures to keep the fantasy element strong.
Definitely a book that has earned a place in my library and will be re-read until the sequel is out September 28. Here’s to my inspiring buddies, Nataliya and Jennifer, and to Emma for a great discussion!