Creeping and boiling

Then the cannon-ball smashed through the window-sill, the opened glass panes shattering into fragments with a crash.  The ball itself rolled on until the stone wall stopped it with a heavy thud, then it burst into pieces, and a creeping gray smoke came boiling out.

I have a lot of issues with this passage.

First of all, it seems like the cannonball smashed through the window, not the windowsill.  As for the panes — if the cannonball smashed through them, doesn’t that mean they were closed, not open?  How would they shatter if not into fragments?  I object, too, to the “with a [sound effect]” construction being used in two consecutive sentences, especially given that the chosen sound effect (“crash,” “thud”) is the most obvious choice in both cases.  The second sentence has too many different actions carried out by too many different objects (the ball, the wall, then the ball again, then the smoke.)  The smoke — is it creeping or boiling?  By my lights it can’t be both.

The lines are from Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, a fantasy novel which despite this paragraph has a lot of good things about it. and which won this year’s Nebula Award.

Two idiosyncratic reactions:

  • Agnieszka’s magic is set up as being the inheritance of Baba Jaga, a kind of intuitive, sing-songy, kitcheny kind of magic, explicitly opposed to the formal, rule-governed spell-casting of Sarkan, the broody sorcery dude who kidnaps, then mentors, then eventually falls in love with her.  This works well in the story, but I’m not on board with the suggestion that formal, rule-governed manipulation is a masculine activity that needs a feminine complement in order to achieve its full power.  Math has an improvisational, intuitive aspect, to be sure; but that aspect, like the formal aspect, belongs to men and women equally.
  • Weird feature of this book:  its setting is a magical version of Poland, and Agnieszka is explicitly presented as being “rooted” in the village, the hearth, the homeland; this is, in part the source of her power.  Sarkan, by contrast, is explicitly “rootless” — without a connection of his own to the land, he has to feed on the young women of the village, one after another, cutting their connection to the village and leaving them sort of ruined, suited only for big-city life.  So my mind naturally wanders to the question of “what group of people were thought of in rural Eastern Europe as rootless cosmopolitans who hide out behind walls looking at books all day and who corrupt our women and we just have to accept it because they have access to mysterious secret powers?”  Now maybe I’m overthinking this, but I do have to point out that after I noticed this I looked up Novik on Wikipedia, and her mother is Polish and her father is Jewish.  Make of it what you will.



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5 thoughts on “Creeping and boiling

  1. Tom Church says:

    If you want magic deeply rooted in the power of the land and its people, try Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor. Unlike anything else I’ve read.

  2. Rebecca Bellovin says:

    Hm, interesting points, but I think it’s worth keeping in mind that Novik’s background is in CS; she started a graduate degree before going off to work in gaming.

    Also, the Dragon’s problem is not that he *isn’t* connected to the land, it’s that he doesn’t *want to be* connected to the land (or to other people). If you want to cast an allegorical gloss on it, I’d say it’s more a comment on American Jews who are convinced that the Cossacks are coming *right now* and think any assimilation is deeply suspect.

  3. valuevar says:

    If you have a really large cannonball and a small window, or if the cannonball came in on the lower side of the window, then it would smash the window-sill, and also shatter the open window-panes. In fact, I suspect that would happen even if the cannonball is smallish and the window isn’t. A cannonball isn’t a soccer ball.

    Other than that, I agree there’s something left to be desired by the paragraph – it feels as if a sudden action were happening in slow motion.

  4. Just received Uprooted for Father’s Day, looking forward to reading it – have really enjoyed the Temerarie series.

  5. Ursula Whitcher says:

    I had a similar reaction to the logic/ intuition contrast in Uprooted. I’ve been amusing myself at odd moments by imagining a story where the prejudices are flipped, and the female wizard triumphs through logic and meticulous note-taking.

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