Lively and passionate book discussion today of Uprooted by Naomi Novik.
This novel, which only some of us realized is set in a fantasized version of medieval Poland, is the story of a clumsy but self-confident 17-year-old village girl named Agnieszka, who is taken against her will as the latest apprentice of the local lord and wizard, known as the Dragon. He does not ravish his (invariably young and female) apprentices, but apparently doesn't teach them much either, and Agnieszka feels her existence futile in his castle until she starts to get uppity, which seems to impress the Dragon and get this reserved, very nerdy man to begin opening up and instructing her in some magic.
I liked this opening section of the book very much. When a visiting prince attempts to rape her, she startles him with such little magic as she's yet learned, and then wallops him over the head with the breakfast tray. This is, as far as I know, the best response to an attempted rape in all of literature, and I was delighted.
However, as Agnieszka rapidly develops a mastery of magic beyond even what the Dragon knows, and as whatever evil entity controls the malevolent Wood adjoining the villages begins throwing tougher and tougher problems against her, rather in the manner of Joss Whedon inventing tougher types of vampires to throw against Buffy each season, I found myself losing interest. After Agnieszka's best friend is chomped by Tolkien's Old Man Willow and has her brain sucked (rather like Whedon's Tara in season 5), and with supreme effort, applying a supposedly useless old magic book the Dragon inherited from Baba Yaga, Agnieszka manages to rescue her, the previously asexual protagonists fall upon each other in a paroxysm of lust. At this point, about 30% in according to Kindle, I mercifully ran out of time to read any more before the meeting.
Our biggest argument was over what happens to people eaten by the Wood. The text establishes early that, if they ever emerge, they go entirely blotto or turn into mass murderers or something equally malevolent, and have to be killed because they cannot be cured, until Agnieszka learns how to do it. C. declared that it was wrong to kill them because it turns out a cure is possible after all. I was among several who maintained that the premise doesn't permit that criticism, since nobody before Agnieszka had the talents or resources to do anything else. But then I terribly confused C. by turning around and criticizing the premise, since the invariable coma or malevolence of the returnees is a supposition imposed on the magic system by the author, and not something found in life. L. pointed out that, IRL, some people make similar assumptions of irredeemable evilness about Muslims. I tried to confirm that that's even less justifiable than the behavior in the novel that C. was trying to criticize, but L. misunderstood me as saying that the charges against Muslims aren't being made. It's very frustrating when someone reads you as saying the exact opposite of your point.