Magic as Personality: Subversion in Uprooted

I still have Uprooted on the brain because, like I said the last time, it's really good. It's an interesting story in part because of how it juggles the familiar with the unfamiliar, giving the reader a lot of material that gives them the comfort of something they know while providing enough subversion in each case to keep things very interesting. Uprooted gives the appearance of a lot of familiar stories, particularly fairy tale ones. There's a smattering of Beauty and the Beast here, a dollop of princess in the tower there, a smidge of an evil sorcerer, something of Paris and Helen, a bit of magical boarding school, a little royal court hijinks, and -- since this is Naomi Novik after all -- dragons. I don't want to spoil anything above the cut, so -- page 1 reveal that the dragon is not a real dragon aside -- I won't say too much, but suffice it to say that each of these familiar tropes gets a bit of a twist in the telling, and part of the joy of reading Uprooted is seeing Novik's awareness of her material through these twists.

One area I particularly enjoyed having my expectations toyed with is the book's magic system. I always like seeing how magic systems are constructed (and writers and readers alike are pretty invested; just see Brandon Sanderson's first, second, and third laws of magic for a taste). Sanderson, his own works wildly popular, has created something like a magical physics in his Cosmere universe. One of the more popular magic systems I've seen lately also draws on the principles of physics: Patrick Rothfuss's magic as conservation of energy system in his Kingkiller Chronicles. Novik's magic, with words of power, rituals, potions, and so on, feels more old-school than these, more familiar. But it's not quite so simple. Note: There are some spoilers after the cut.

In my review of the book, I mentioned that the magic system in Uprooted actually provided one of my few disappointments, in that the magic relies on language but requires no understanding of the language being used. I think there may be a whole essay to write one day about language, power, and magic, but not today. Because if Novik's magic system gave me one of my few disappointments in the book, it also gave me one of my favorite bits. And it starts with this familiar premise:

The Dragon starts teaching Agniezka wizardry because she has the gift. His approach to magic is exacting, academic. He's worked out his magical world into different classes and types: there's healing magic in one column and military magic in another; there are trivial spells he calls cantrips, and grades of difficulty moving up from there. He categorizes, measures, memorizes, pronounces things exactly. He's controlled and detached. He's a magical scientist, of a sort. Then, there's Agniezka, who struggles with the simplest cantrips, prefers cooking to conjuring, and seems to do best when feeling out the intuitive shape of the magic she wants to perform. Her magic works when it feels right, not when it's measured out correctly. It's connected, somehow, to the earth. She's messy and emotional.

There's a magical trope called... apparently... Gender-Restricted Ability. To be perfectly honest, I was expecting something a little snappier than that, but if it's not a flashy name it's certainly functional. The trope pops up when a writer delineates magical ability based on gender. Think Dune's Reverend Mothers, whose combination -- in Muad'Dib's own words -- of seduction, virginity, and cunning give them a kind of supernatural control over anyone they target, an ability the men of that world simply can't access (unless you are the one chosen man, of course, whose combination of those powers with his manliness will make him the most powerful person in the entire universe, ever). Or think of Wheel of Time, where women, who are particularly skilled with wind and water, access their abilities from the "saidar" half of the One Power and men, particularly good with fire and earth, access theirs from the "saidin" half. This kind of magic system enforces a kind of essentialist gender binary, and also often plays into unseemly stereotypes (the Reverend Mothers acting simultaneously as the Madonna and the Whore; the male force in WoT providing greater strength in destructive arts).

Plenty of works have done interesting things with Gender-Restricted Ability. Making it a biological imperative like those above is, I hope, obviously kind of icky (erasing by necessity the existence or importance of trans and other non-gender-binary people in its construction). A subversion I've been a fan of in the past is the one that sees Gender-Restricted Ability not as a biological imperative but rather as a sociological function, as gender performance. This is, I think, how magic would work if it actually existed in our actual world. Differences in ability would be enforced by a patriarchal culture and performed by the members of that culture. The two works that come to mind that show this kind of world are Discworld and Earthsea, both of which draw a sociological line between wizards, largely systematic and academic (literally inhabiting ivory towers), and witches, intuitive, emotional, and connected to the earth (living quite frequently in huts found in marshes). Not surprisingly, in these stories, wizardry is viewed as a higher form of magic use. It all brings to mind the real-world history of midwifing and doctoring, and, well, a hundred other examples. However, both Pratchett's and Le Guin's works show people crossing the social boundaries, giving the lie to the oppressive framework that privileges wizards over witches. I hope it's clear why I like this kind of representation of gendered magic more. It is, simply, more honest.

Novik goes a step further, inviting the reader to recognize and get comfortable with the Gender-Restricted magical environment of the Dragon's tower. His detached, studious meticulousness contrasted against Agniezka's emotional intuition sets up a clearly gendered magical system. The Dragon's constant patriarchal abuses, his patronizing attitude, his domineering presence, his insistence alone on having young women in his service (when by his own admission there's no real reason they must be female) all set up a sociological basis for what we're seeing.

So it comes as a surprise when Agniezka gets to the royal court and all of that setup comes crashing down.

Because what we get in the court is a set of wizards who show us something completely different. Novik takes us in slowly. There's The Falcon first, whose acuity with sight and fire and whose covetous ambition don't do much to challenge the kind of wizard we're trained to think he should be. There's also The Willow, whose strength in the healing arts fits comfortably into a what we would expect to see from a female practitioner of magic in this world (in fact, the Dragon, earlier, suggested that Agniezka may have a talent for healing for this very reason!). Ultimately, though, we get to Alosha, the Sword, and Ragostok, the Splendid, both direct affronts to the idea of Gender-Restricted Ability in Uprooted. Alosha is the other side of the Willow's coin, a woman whose meticulous detached hardness and skill with destructive magic outstrips even the Falcon. Ragostok, whose typically "feminine" vanity and materialism lend to his skill with decorative arts, completes the flip. Nobody in the story sees either of these two as aberrations -- there is not a word or a whisper that they might be abnormal in any way. They may subvert the Dragon's ideas about gender, but they don't subvert this magical world as any of the other characters understand it.

In this way, Novik puts sociological restrictions on magical ability not in her world but squarely in the reader's mind, playing on our own expectations and biases before revealing to us that she's actually doing something much less essentialist and much more interesting. Because if Sanderson has magic as physics, and Rothfuss has magic as conservation of energy, then Novik has magic as personality. Falcon's need to know what others have so he can take it is what feeds his skill as a seer. Alosha's straightforward, hard personality feed her skill with enhancing steel (armor and weapons). Ragostok's sheer vanity gives him great skill creating and manipulating very pretty, but ultimately impractical things.

The Dragon refuses to commit himself, to people, to place, and ultimately, to style. He's the wizard who doesn't have roots, and that allows him to practice a variety of different magical styles without being tied down to any one, but also which prevents him from understanding Agniezka's abilities, which are directly tied to the strong connections she feels to her valley and the people in her life (and which are, in fact, much stronger when she's working magic that draws directly on those connections). The Dragon misinterprets this twice-over, first in his sense that Agniezka's skills are gendered somehow, and second in his sense that they're prone to or even the result of corruption. His misunderstanding supports the reader's own, but remember: The Dragon is, when the book opens, kind of a patriarchal dillweed. He's invested in thinking that women aren't as important as he is. Novik suggests over the course of the text that he can learn better, and she challenges her reader to do the same.