Title: Spinning Silver
Author: Naomi Novik
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication Date: July 2018
Hardcover: 448 Pages
A fresh and imaginative retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale from the bestselling author of Uprooted, which was hailed as “a very enjoyable fantasy with the air of a modern classic” by The New York Times Book Review.
With the Nebula Award–winning Uprooted, Naomi Novik opened a brilliant new chapter in an already acclaimed career, delving into the magic of fairy tales to craft a love story that was both timeless and utterly of the now. Spinning Silver draws readers deeper into this glittering realm of fantasy, where the boundary between wonder and terror is thinner than a breath, and safety can be stolen as quickly as a kiss.
Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders, but her father’s inability to collect his debts has left his family on the edge of poverty—until Miryem takes matters into her own hands. Hardening her heart, the young woman sets out to claim what is owed and soon gains a reputation for being able to turn silver into gold.
When an ill-advised boast draws the attention of the king of the Staryk—grim fey creatures who seem more ice than flesh—Miryem’s fate, and that of two kingdoms, will be forever altered. Set an impossible challenge by the nameless king, Miryem unwittingly spins a web that draws in a peasant girl, Wanda, and the unhappy daughter of a local lord who plots to wed his child to the dashing young tsar.
But Tsar Mirnatius is not what he seems. And the secret he hides threatens to consume the lands of humans and Staryk alike. Torn between deadly choices, Miryem and her two unlikely allies embark on a desperate quest that will take them to the limits of sacrifice, power, and love.
Channeling the vibrant heart of myth and fairy tale, Spinning Silver weaves a multilayered, magical tapestry that readers will want to return to again and again.
Stand alone or series: Can be read as a standalone novel, but is a companion novel set in the same world as Uprooted.
How did we get this book: Review copy from the publisher
Format (e- or p-): Print
I will start this review with a confession: I had no idea what I was getting into when I started Spinning Silver.
Both Ana and I had read and wholeheartedly fallen in love with Uprooted, Naomi Novik’s enchanting and luscious fairy tale about a Dragon, an unlikely young woman with magical skill, and her beloved best friend. I was thrilled to learn that there would be another book in the Uprooted series, but had little understanding about how this book would fit in with Agnieszka’s adventures. Like I said, I had no idea what I was getting into. Spinning Silver is a companion novel though it can be read entirely as a standalone work; it is a tale of powerful magic and of debts owed and paid; it is a story about women who refuse to accept the brutality of the men who seek to subjugate them; it is a story about the power of found families and the conscious choice to protect the ones you love.
Spinning Silver is the story of three women: Miryem, the daughter of a kindhearted but hopelessly ineffectual moneylender; Wanda, the quiet but observant and steadfast village girl, sent to Miryem to work off her father’s debts; Irina, a noblewoman who has Staryk blood in her veins and the daughter of an ambitious duke with eyes on the crown.
Miryem is our primary protagonist as the moneylender, antisemitic implications of her village neighbors. Cares for her family and their safety and health. Struggles with a marriage to a fey king she never wanted, was never asked for her opinion, and navigates her way in the Staryk’s winter kingdom.
Irina is the novel’s Tsarina, given a ring, necklace, and crown of fey silver that makes her irresistible and unlocks her own blood powers–which she needs in order to survive her murderous tsar husband, possessed by a demon of fire in a bargain for power.
Wanda is the unassuming village girl, who is forced to work for Miryem as an extra hand around Miryem’s home and farm and later to collect money from the other villagers and learn the magic of numbers and balance. Wanda is forced into a position she never chose by her father; who seeks to drink and beat the money out of his children. Wanda finds love and family with Miryem, and is desperate to hold onto that for as long as she can.
This is a nuanced, intricate narrative that plays with the most powerful fairy tale tropes, written in a grace that Naomi Novik alone can achieve. There are patterns throughout the story, three daughters, three wives, three lives intertwined by fate and determination to rise above the “destiny” carved out for each of them by men in their lives. I love that our perception of these characters–and the men around them–also changes over the course of the story. There are monsters, to be sure–Wanda’s father for one, and the fire demon within Tsar Mirnatius, for another–but what I love so much about this story is how everyone is more than what they initially seem. Even the cruelest winter king is given depth and humility, if not humanity, as the novel unfolds.
I loved the way Novik expertly weaves these three different storylines together, using classic fairy tale devices to do so and creating a magic wholly her own. My only qualm is that the frequent swapping between characters, often multiple times mid-chapter, was hard to get used to at first (especially as the new narrators are sprinkled into the novel’s later chapters); additionally, the Staryk’s entire motivation and backstory felt rushed, and I yearned to spend more time with Miryem as she makes key revelations in the novel’s climactic battle. But these are minor notes in an otherwise perfect story–I loved Spinning Silver so dearly, I wanted to flip back to its first chapter as soon as I had read the last line.
Absolutely recommended and one of my favorite books of 2018.
This was the book equivalent of an embrace. I really cannot think of a higher compliment or better description for it. It’s a super smart retelling of Rumpelstiltskin cobbled together with Slavic folklore, featuring amazing women as its lead characters.
Beyond what Thea already said – and I am in complete agreement with her detailed assessment of the novel with regards to plot, characters and the writing (oh, the lovely writing) – there are two other aspects that I would like to elaborate on: the novel showcases prime examples of unreliable narratives and of slow burn romances. The latter is better left unspoiled but suffice it to say, that the romances that eventually develop would not exist without the unreliable narrative or the way that the romantic interests are first introduced. It is the type of slow burn romances that really appeal to me personally: the type that is hidden in plain sight.
With regards to the former: there are three main female characters whose viewpoint narratives inform most of the novel – Miryem, Irina and Wanda. The lives of these women intercalate and intersect in beautiful ways: they know each personally yes, but each of their arcs revolve around different strands and walks of lives. From looking at what concerns one girl with an abusive father and her most immediate needs (Wanda), to looking at what evolves around the lives of the people – those closest to you, yes, but also your People – that rely on you (Irina), to effectively being a person in charge of life and death in a much bigger scale (Miryem). And all of this happens without the author losing track of the micro, of the personal and of the emotive.
But going back to the point of unreliability: each of these women only knows so much to start with. Their viewpoint is informed by their circumstances and even the fact that they are women in a very male-dominated world. When Miryam meets and gets involved with the bargains and life and death situations around the Staryk King, we see him as a villain just as she does. When Irina gets trapped in a marriage with what demon tsar, we can only hope she will be able to get away. When Wanda starts saving money in secret to get away from her abusive father, we know the clock starts ticking. But then everything changes – multiple times throughout the narrative.
For us as readers, we can only see what they see, and I was flabbergasted at how the author was able to twists their stories, the stories of the men around them, and myself around her little finger. The journey was excellent – in the way that the real story slowly unveiled itself in minutia, in gestures, in the things hidden in silence.
Everybody here at some point makes terrible choices in order to save lives (sometimes just their own) and sometimes theses choices repeat bad choices made in the past but sometimes they need to break away the chain. This is also after all, a book about bargains and compromise – and what you are willing to bargain and what you are not. There are truly heartbreaking as well as heartwarming moments here, starring the ladies of the novel and their fortitude of character. This is a novel about growth, quiet strength and accepting responsibility for the lives of others.
There are also great points made about people who are victimised, about abuse, about surviving. About breaking the cycle of abuse, about found families that help you. I have many favourite quotes from what is now a favourite book but this one here hit it home so beautifully:
“Then you don’t have enough, and I have more than I need,” she said. “Hush, sweetheart. You don’t have a mother anymore, but let me speak to you with her voice a minute. Listen. Stepon told us what happened in your house. There are men who are wolves inside, and want to eat up other people to fill their bellies. That is what was in your house with you, all your life. But here you are with your brothers, and you are not eaten up, and there is not a wolf inside you. You have fed each other, and you kept the wolf away. That is all we can do for each other in the world, to keep the wolf away. And if there has been food in my house for you, then I am glad, glad with all my heart. I hope there will always be.”
If you like Juliet Marillier’s work, if you like Megan Whalen Turner’s novels, if you enjoyed , if you read and loved The Hollow Kingdom, just make sure to pick up Spinning Silver.
Thea: 9 – Exquisite, beautiful, and verging on a 10
Ana: 9 – Damn Near Perfect