Most authors want discussion and buzz to swirl around their books upon release. Understandably so, attention leads to book sales and reaching a larger audience, but the flip side for readers is that the hype around a book can negatively impact the reading experience. As much as I like to think I give each book a chance based on its merits, there are undeniable instances where the articles, reviews, tweets and forum posts I see about a book have changed the way I approach the text. Hype played a big part in my making me dislike Naomi Novik’s Uprooted (2015) more than I probably would have otherwise.
Uprooted by Naomi Novik had a lot of love from the online genre community, getting multiple award nominations and a whole lot of “best book of the year” comments from review blogs. One element reviewers latched onto was the fresh/unusual Polish setting and influence from Polish fairy tales, elements that were also pushed by the marketing team and the author (who is of Polish descent). My feelings on her previous Temeraire series are pretty lukewarm, but that emphasis, constantly repeated, made me see Uprooted as a must-read. Uprooted is also a throwback to the 90s fairy tale-inspired fantasies of Jane Yolen, Patricia C. Wrede and Snow White, Blood Red, a style I find immensely appealing and always want more of.
I believe I would have liked Uprooted a whole lot more if the various reviewers and podcasters (and the author herself) hadn’t given the impression it was a fresh take on a traditional Polish fairy tale. As a tribute to the 90s fairy tale mashup, Uprooted works. As a Polish version of the same…not so much. Beyond the names and a few other pieces of set-dressing, there wasn’t much I recognized from Polish folklore besides an offhand mention of the Baba Jaga.
In the Afterword, Novik cites “Agnieszka — Skrawek Nieba” (“Agnieszka — Scrap of the Heavens”) as the primary inspiration. I’d never heard of it, and I’m not the only Polish person who hasn’t. That’s because it’s not a traditional Polish fairy tale, but rather an original work published in 1963 by Natalia Gałczyńska, heavily inspired by a French fairy-stories (as are all the stories collected in O Wróżkach i Czarodziejach [Of Fairies and Sorcerers]). Novik has acknowledged this, but it didn’t come across in the PR materials or the reviews that constantly went back to citing Uprooted’s “traditional Polish roots” as part of what made it appealing. And I wouldn’t have been looking for those hints of Polish medieval culture and renaissance stories in Uprooted, which made me frustrated as I kept coming up dry, if that initial hype didn’t have such a heavy focus on an element of Uprooted that isn’t really there.
That frustration also made me feel a little rotten, which probably didn’t help my reaction to the book over all—I’m a Polish immigrant who came to Canada very young, and my early exposure to Polish folklore wasn’t exactly immersive. Second-generation immigrant authors often get that much more scrutiny over the authenticity of their work when they draw from their home culture for inspiration than their counterparts who live wholly within that culture. God knows some of my stories have faced criticism for getting things wrong when I write about Poland, and it’s hugely unfair that I should get upset over Uprooted for not being “Polish enough.” Yet it’s also true that the publishers and the author (on their behest, I bet) used that claim as one crux of their marketing campaign. My final impression of the book suffered as a result.
That’s not to say the baggage brought on by hype before I read the book ultimately turned a book I would have liked into a book I didn’t—the central romance between Agnieszka and Sarkan is outright abusive on Sarkan’s part and left a bad taste in my mouth, which is my other major complaint. However, I think I would have been far more forgiving that Uprooted was simply a western fairy tale mashup that used Polish names, food and occasionally songs if it wasn’t sold as taking a deeper influence than that from Polish folklore.
Especially when that element of the reviews is what got me excited to give the book a go in the first place.