Let’s get this out of the way early. Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver (2018) is not perfect. It’s a little overlong, with a bit of a pacing issue about two-thirds of the way through. Beyond that, other problems include … no, wait. I forgot. There are no other problems. And I lifted up each and every page to check under them. Zip. Nada. Nothing. So yeah, the biggest problem with Spinning Silver is kind of like the problem you have when the waiter brings out your chocolate cake dessert, and it’s a little bit bigger than you were planning on. Oh, the humanity.
My marketing info calls this a “retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin fairytale,” and sure, it’s that. But such a narrowly focused pitch does a real disservice to the richness that is Spinning Silver, as Novik weaves in a slew of fairy and folktale tropes, images, vocabulary, themes, number patterns, and the like. Beyond the references, the entire work is steeped in the atmosphere of the fairy/folktale. Spinning Silver isn’t just a by-the-numbers intellectual exercise in retelling (begin with one “once upon a time,” add a three and a seven or two, mix in a red cloak, set to steep under a fall of snow out of season …); its world, character, and emotionality are so seamlessly and immersively complete that you feel you are reading it while, yourself, standing in the dark wood or sitting in the tiny cottage. Anyone can retell a fairytale using its dead bones; it takes a real master to re-enliven, re-enchant those bones so they grow flesh and dance, and that’s what Novik has done in a brilliant work that is destined for my best of 2018 list.
Worldbuilding here is lushly detailed, whether we’re moving through a village or a world of snowy enchantment, a cottage or a manor house. All are brought equally to life. And while many fantasy novels richly relate the distinctive culture of their fantastical races (how elves live, dwarvish magic, etc.), Novik does that and more, invoking the main character’s Jewishness throughout the story, not just as an aside or as a painted backdrop, having it imbue conversation and action with deep constant meaning. For good and for ill: the sense of community a shared religion can instill, the joyous celebration of a wedding, or the ugly ways in which anti-Semitism rears up from verbal insult to entire villages being burnt out.
The plot is convoluted, but here’s a stripped down, spoiler-free version. The country of Lithvas, ruled by a young Tsar and the nobles, suffers under ever-more-harsh winters as well as the presence of the Staryk — icy fae beings who have a lust for gold and no compunctions about killing humans who hunt their woods or otherwise get in their way. Luckily, that doesn’t happen often as the Staryk live in their own world, which only overlaps with the human one in spots, though the most powerful Staryk can create a silver Road that allows them to move back and forth between the two and travel in both.
This is the background for three young women. Miryem is the daughter of a kind but hopelessly ineffective moneylender whose inherent inability to collect debts, combined with the anti-Semitism of their village, conspires to keep them poor and always on the edge of survival until Miryem takes on the job of debt-collection and turns out to be quite good at it. Wanda is a poor village girl who ends up working for Miryem. And Irina is a nobleman’s daughter whose lack of beauty frustrates her father’s desire to marry her off to a good match. Each is in (or soon enters into) a horrible, seemingly hopeless situation. Miryem ends up entangled with the King of the Staryk, Irina with the cruel Tsar and his dark secret, and Wanda has to deal with a drunken, violent father. And as one might imagine, all three stories becomes interwoven with each other.
As noted, this a minimalist plot summary. Suffice to say a lot is going on here. Much of it pulled from those old stories: permanent winter, strange huts in the woods, the power of true names, witches and demons, women forced into undesired marriage, faery realms, cruel parents, magical trees, three questions, dangerous bargains, orphans, and more. All of it is compelling and stimulating, with twists, turns, and complications a-plenty.
Novik deftly weaves the separate strands of plot into a cohesive, engrossing whole, bringing them together or separating them at just the right moments. The book makes use of multiple first-person POVs, which has become typical of the genre, but Spinning Silver takes a slightly different path than most, with Novik adding POVs throughout the book, as opposed to introducing two or three at the start and then simply alternating. This gradual broadening of voice offers different perspectives, varies tone and style, and enhances the theme of community. Granted, the shifts do create a sense of dislocation at times, with the reader not quite sure who is speaking at the start of a segment, especially if it’s the first POV for a character, but it doesn’t take long to figure things out. And that momentary dislocation, I’d argue, is fitting for fairytales, in which the characters move through their mundane world until it suddenly goes aslant via a handful of beans, the prick of a finger.
Characterization is richly vivid across the spectrum, whether we’re talking about the three main characters or a host of secondary characters: the Staryk king, the Tsar, Irina’s old nurse, Wanda’s brothers, Miryem’s parents, some Staryk servants. All are true to their portrayal no matter how their context changes. Miryem, for instance, drives hard, fair bargains as a moneylender and continues to do the same in her dealings with the Staryk king; she doesn’t “find” some previously untapped character trait that allows her to deal with the situation. Even better, all the characters are presented as fully complex people. The three protagonists can’t be reduced to “spunky young girl fighting a bad situation with pluck and sass.” Instead they wrestle with deeply ethical/moral choices and readers will, I believe, wince at some of their decisions, even if they understand them. The antagonists, meanwhile — the Tsar and Staryk king — are presented at first as stock villains, monsters to be faced down. But as the book goes on the young women are witness to (and sometimes the cause of) that surface characterization being slowly whittled away to reveal deeper, more complicated layers. The cheap, easy way of doing that is the old “monster with a heart of gold,” but by now in this review you might guess that Novik isn’t doing cheap and easy, and so that stripping away is neither wholly linear (i.e. always heading in one direction) nor simplistic (“Yay, turns out he’s a good guy!”).
Beyond all the above positives of plot and character and setting, Spinning Silver is just a stylistic joy. I marked several passages for the lyrical nature of the language, especially noticeable in scenes involving the Staryk world. I loved the plethora of references to fairytale, the many ways in which Novik employs similes, metaphors, and echoes of language or imagery that resonate later in the book, as when Miryem’s mother worries that to collect the debts Miryem must “harden yourself to ice,” a line that haunts her later entry into the cold Staryk world. Or how squirrels scurry in and out of the story acting as, well, squirrels, but also as metaphors for all the “small, insignificant” people the Tsars and nobles never notice, or think of only as pests and annoyances. Or how that transformation into gold that lies at the heart of the old story is turned into a reflection of the ways that women are bought and sold: “he wanted to keep her and make more gold out of her forever, and it did not matter what she wanted, because he was so strong.”
I could honestly go on at some length and at some detail praising Novik’s craft — her language, imagery, thematic echoes, sensitive characterization. I’ve got the notes, after all. So let’s just, as the lawyers say, stipulate it’s all there. Out of the silver of old tales, Novik has spun true gold.
It’s not often that I end a novel in awe of characters, the world-building, and the depth and complexity of the themes, while still being absolutely delighted with the storytelling. In Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik does all that and more. It’s my favorite fantasy novel of 2018 so far, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it’s still in that top position at the end of this year.
In medieval Lithvas (according to Novik, a fantasy version of Lithuania with a little Russia and Poland blended in), Miryem Mandelstam is the daughter of a Jewish moneylender in a small town. Panov Mandelstam is a gentle, kindhearted man: too kind to be a successful moneylender, in fact, since he’s constitutionally unable to demand repayment of the money he’s lent out, leaving him and his wife and daughter destitute. When her mother falls ill, Miryam has had enough. A bit of winter has found its way into her heart, and that combined with her stubbornness (and her threats to involve her wealthy grandfather and the law if the villagers don’t repay her what they owe) makes her a success at her new job as village moneylender.
Miryem takes on a strong village girl, Wanda, as a household servant, letting her work off her father’s debt. Miryam doesn’t realize it, but Wanda is actually grateful for the chance to avoid her abusive father, and to stealthily put away the extra money that Miryam pays her. Miryam’s parents are alarmed at the increased iciness in her heart, but she has no intention of handing the moneylending job back to her ineffective father. Miryam rather defiantly tells her mother that she shouldn’t be sorry that her daughter has the ability to change silver into gold.
However, there’s a magical road that appears and disappears in Lithvas during the winter, controlled by the fae-like Staryk, and other ears have heard Miryam’s boast to her mother during her journey back to their village. Soon she finds herself entangled in the Staryk king’s demands to change his silver into gold. Miryam comes up with a brilliant plan, but meeting the Staryk king’s demands may be almost as bad as failure.
Spinning Silver begins with these allusions to the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale, but Novik is weaving far more into her story than this one tale. Miryam’s plan involves the ambitious duke of Vysnia and his daughter Irina, who is thought too plain to attract the handsome young tsar of Lithvas, Mirnatius. The Staryk silver may tip the balance for Irina, but she soon finds that gaining Mirnatius’s attention is a highly dangerous thing indeed. Irina’s story quickly becomes as compelling as Miryam’s, as she needs to use all her wits and some gifts of her heritage to escape with her life and soul intact.
Bill makes several eloquent points in his review, and I enthusiastically concur with everything he says. Novik’s unique moneylender twist on the story of Rumpelstiltskin is highly creative. Eastern European folklore is woven in as well. The (literally) icy Staryk king and his winter kingdom called to mind Morozko, the Russian frost-king, and I had an appreciative shudder of recognition when a certain demon is named. Novik takes her story far beyond a retelling or recasting of old tales, though. I particularly enjoyed the fascinating concepts dealing with cold Staryk silver and the warm gold from the “sunlit world.” It played into the plot in a way that I hadn’t anticipated.
The sensitive, meaningful way in which the Jewish faith and culture were incorporated into Spinning Silver was lovely. Antisemitism is addressed, but doesn’t weigh down the story. The focus is more on personal connections, like the love between Irina and her old nurse, the understanding and respect that Miryam gains for the Staryk people, and the family bonds that develop between the Mandelstams and Wanda and her brothers.
Without tipping over into unrealistic anachronism, we also see women characters who are empowered by the actions they take to save themselves, as well as others they care about, in spite of the fact that each of them ― against their desires ― is promised, given, or simply taken in marriage. It’s a fairly subtle connection between our three main characters.
Spinning Silver is an enchanting fantasy, woven of fire and ice, sunlit gold and Staryk silver, icy faerie winter and Lithvas spring. Naomi Novik has crafted a truly wondrous novel.
Spinning Silver is a Rumpelstiltskin story that doesn’t showcase an impish man with a mysterious name, but Miryem, the daughter of an incompetent Jewish money-lender in an anonymous Russian village. Points of view alternate, principally, between Miryem, who assumes money lending duties with much greater ability than her father can muster; Wanda, a farmer’s daughter who falls within Miryem’s employ; and Irina, the unhappy daughter of a titled noble.
Miryem has such a talent for her calling, she quickly gains the reputation for being able to change silver to gold. A rash boast carries this rumor within hearing of the Staryk king (winter fey), who has his own purposes for the metal, and will tax Miryem’s abilities until both are bound in a complicated relationship which pleases neither of them. Meanwhile, a demon plots the destruction of either or both the human and Staryk kingdoms, and will use all interested parties to do it.
The alternating points of view work well, and Novik does manage to distinguish voice in a subtle, mostly unconfusing way. Pacing is strong as the characters grow as their fates weave more and more closely together.
Novik has a number of very good novels under her belt and when she writes, it’s with a kind of patience and confidence that really can’t be pretended. She opens Spinning Silver with heavy exposition and no particular hook and yet it seems just fine. Pages keep turning. The plot keeps unfolding by a deft, invisible hand. She infuses a deeply atmospheric fairy tale quality to this story, rounding her characters’ shoulders with credible burdens and touching them with sympathy and interest, pulling her readers in with every word.
I did wish for a little more story inventiveness when it came to Miryem’s relationship with the Staryk king. There were two enemies to lovers tropes that probably work for most readers. I didn’t love how they came off. No surprise there. I don’t usually like how romantic subplots go. I don’t find them very convincing.
In all, a fun, atmospheric read I would recommend without reservation.
In my review of Unsong, I talked about the two kinds of pleasure I get nowadays from books — the first where I see a familiar story done well, the second where I get something new. Spinning Silver is definitely a member of the first class.
Novik’s story is really good at the details. The Staryk in particular are done well ― human enough to be intelligible, alien enough to be just a bit uncomfortable, and details like the white road the Staryk ride on their raids into human lands and the odd footprints of their mounts are very effective at creating an atmosphere of mystery and menace about them. Similarly, the magic of the world, although not a fully realized system in the Sanderson mode, feels organic and convincing (the cottage between worlds, the tree growing over Wanda’s mother’s grave, and so forth). The characters, especially the main point of view characters, are all interesting people depicted well enough that we get the feeling of knowing them “warts and all” and still liking them. In addition, the writing is very polished; this is a book that goes down easy.
You may guess from the rating that I have a reservation or two, however, and the fact is that I was slightly disappointed in the overarching plot. In the first place, it was pretty easy to discern the end from the beginning. If you read enough stories this will become a familiar problem, but I was a bit disappointed here because I wondered if Novik would have the daring to go off the rails she appeared to have built — and she didn’t.
The specific nature of the plot line she hewed to also plays into one of my pet peeves — what I suppose I might call the Breaking Dawn problem of supernatural romance. [HIGHLIGHT THE FOLLOWING TEXT TO REVEAL SPOILER] The main female protagonists, Miryem and Irina, end up marrying (or, in Irina’s case, staying married to, instead of escaping) husbands whose pasts are frankly monstrous. The Staryk king has been leading his people on murderous rampages into human lands for generations; the demon-possessed czar, although not as culpable as one thinks at first, has still been allowing his literal inner demon to eat people for his whole life. Novik does more than Stephenie Meyer did to show her protagonists grappling with these facts and to show a change of heart in these monarchs, but it’s still a bit creepifying to have the female protagonists say, in the end, “Reader, I married [this extremely rich, powerful and very good-looking murderer]. But only after he promised to change!”