Naomi Novik is an American fantasy writer with a passion for fairy tales and some interesting books under her belt. I first encountered her as the author of His Majesty’s Dragon, which is the first book in a fantastically different fantasy concept (think an authentic history of the Napoleonic wars…but with dragons providing an air force). Novik also wrote the Grimm-like Uprooted, which is basically an extended fairy tale and in that regard is quite similar to Spinning Silver.
Spinning Silver takes the familiar fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin and adds many, many layers of complexity. It centres around three young women: Miryem, Wanda, and Irina. Miryem is the daughter of a Jewish moneylender, whose family is reviled by the local villagers and whose father is too gentle to convince debtors to repay their debts or pay fair interest. When her mother falls ill, Miryem grits her teeth and takes over the debt-collecting business herself, determined to make her family’s business profitable. She succeeds, to the point where she is able to pay a local farmer’s daughter, Wanda, to assist her each day both with household chores and with the business.
Trouble arises for Miryem when she unwisely boasts about being able to turn ‘silver into gold’ (through her money lending business) in the hearing of a Staryk prince. The Staryk are a magical race who live in an icy kingdom and regularly raid human settlements for gold. The Staryk expects her to change his silver into gold, and failure could mean death. Non-magical Miryem has to scramble to find a way to make it happen, and in the process accidentally involves a duke’s daughter, Irina, in a dynastic marriage she had never expected to make.
Why I Love It
This is fantasy for readers who are a little tired of the more standard heroic-warriors-and-mages-lead-their-country-in-an-epic-battle form. The action centres around Miryem, Wanda, and Irina, three young women fighting stubbornly (and intelligently) for what they believe in, and it’s nice to see such strong female protagonists. Male protectors aren’t really useful in this world: Miryem’s father is loving but out of his league, Wanda’s father is a brute, and Irina’s father is more interested in politics than his daughter. Marriage doesn’t precisely help, either; these young ladies have no time or space to be shrinking violets.
In addition, this book’s setting is rich, vibrant, and believable. The Staryk begin the book as flat-out villains, but it isn’t long before you begin to see that things are far more complex and nuanced than they first appear. A money lender doesn’t at first glance seem like a protagonist you could care that much for, but Miryem is wonderful, and I actually found myself siding with her against the villagers who were happy to borrow but never wanted to repay. Another character, the tsar, is selfish and vicious, but even he has hidden depths and complexities which come to light as the novel progresses.
Overall, I think what I liked best about Spinning Silver is that it takes the idea of a fairy tale back to what it was in the days of the Brothers Grimm. This is not a cutesy Disney version; this is a magical world where bad things happen to good people, and you’d better think quickly if you want to keep your head above the water. But – like any good fairy tale – there are hidden rules. Miryem, Wanda, and Irina aren’t living in a chaotic universe where crap just happens, and when they’re able to figure out the system, they’re also able to control it. There’s something extremely satisfying in that, and Novik handles it brilliantly.
Where To Get it
I pre-ordered Spinning Silver through my local library, and still had to wait for a number of other people to finish with it before I could get my hands on a copy. I didn’t initially buy a copy (I’ll be honest, and confess that I didn’t really think Novik could pull off this particular fairy tale as a full-length novel), but it’s now on my list to buy from Book Depository.