Spinning Silverby Naomi Novik Published 10 Jul 2018
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Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders... but her father isn't a very good one. Free to lend and reluctant to collect, he has loaned out most of his wife's dowry and left the family on the edge of poverty--until Miryem steps in. Hardening her heart against her fellow villagers' pleas, she sets out to collect what is owed--and finds herself more than up to the task. When her grandfather loans her a pouch of silver pennies, she brings it back full of gold.
But having the reputation of being able to change silver to gold can be more trouble than it's worth--especially when her fate becomes tangled with the cold creatures that haunt the wood, and whose king has learned of her reputation and wants to exploit it for reasons Miryem cannot understand.
"Spinning Silver" Reviews
No one freak out, but I just thoroughly enjoyed a fantasy book 😍 this was so immersive and well written and I liked it a heckin’ ton!
Because that's what the story is really about: getting out of paying your debts.
There is just something about Novik's fairy tales. Something magical, atmospheric and utterly charming. I didn't like Spinning Silver quite as much as my beloved Uprooted - and I'll explain why a bit later - but it still kept me captivated from start to finish.
Spinning Silver is a loose retelling of Rumpelstiltskin. I say "loose" because you will recognise certain elements from the original - turning things into gold, the importance of names, etc. - but this is really a completely different story with different characters and many new plot lines. There's also not just one Rumpelstiltskin character, as several characters embody different aspects of the traditional imp.
I love that it's a very pastoral fairy tale with forests and country magic. The setting of the book gives it a lot of its atmosphere, and it works very well. There are parts that follow the characters through quiet daily farming activities, but there is magic and fear thrumming just under the surface.
Blue shadows stretched out over the snow, cast by a pale thin light shining somewhere behind me, and as my breath rose in quick clouds around my face, the snow crunched: some large creature, picking its way toward the sleigh.
Miryem is the daughter of the town's moneylender, but she takes over her father's job when he repeatedly fails to collect their debts. Turns out she has a talent for it and she soon finds herself turning more and more silver into gold. Unfortunately, this attracts the attention of one of the Staryk - fearsome creatures who desire gold above all else.
I found it really interesting that Novik explored the idea of a Jewish moneylender as Rumpelstiltskin. The traditional story is one where Rumpelstiltskin aids a woman in spinning straw into gold and she refuses to hold up her side of the bargain. Interestingly, it is Rumpelstiltskin who is viewed as the greedy villain. Antisemitic interpretations of the story shed a completely new light on it. Though it was unlikely the intention of the original, as the folktale predates any record of antisemitismm by about 2000 years and predates the idea of the Jewish moneylender by even more, many believe that more modern Rumpelstiltskins were deliberately made to represent Jews.
Novik, who is herself of Lithuanian-Jewish descent, uses this to challenge the Jewish moneylender stereotype and explore the antisemitism surrounding it. It's clever, and I loved it.
In some ways, it is a smarter book than Uprooted, and yet I didn't like it quite as much because parts of this were definitely convoluted. What I've explained above is just a tiny portion of the plot. There are other supporting subplots involving a noblewoman marrying a tsar possessed by a fire demon, and a poor farm girl and her brother running away from a crime. Then there's the whole tale of the ice king and answering three questions every night.
“Thrice, mortal maiden,” in a rhyme almost like a song, “Thrice you shall turn silver to gold for me, or be changed to ice yourself.”
I counted no less than six different perspectives - honestly, I may have missed someone - and you have to learn the symbol/image for each character, as that is the only way you'll know whose point-of-view the book has moved to.
Though I appreciate books with multiple layers and complex plots, I think shedding some parts of this would have only benefited it. Some chapters lean away from complex and interesting, and toward dense and confusing.
That being said, I still recommend it if you enjoyed Novik's Uprooted. It's a fascinating, exciting fairy tale with a whole lot of atmosphere and charm. And creepy secret worlds on the other side of mirrors(!). I hope Novik writes more of these books soon.
CW: Domestic abuse (physical; non-sexual); antisemitism.
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ARC provided by Dey Rey in exchange for an honest review.
“Bring me the winter king, and I will make you a summer queen.”
Spinning Silver is one of the best books I’ve read all year. I loved this story with every fiber of my being. And Naomi Novik is a master at storytelling and interweaving stories together. You all know that this is a very loose reimaging of Rumpelstiltskin but I’d say it’s more of an empowering tale of three girls, all on three different paths, all promised to three different men, while all being looked over by three different mothers. Three is such a constant theme in this book, too, and it really helps reinforce that this story feels like a tangible piece of magic in your hands while reading. This book is nothing short of a masterpiece.
“The real story isn’t half as pretty as the one you’ve heard.”
The Three Girls:
➽ Wanda - a girl who has had to be strong, because it’s the only life she has ever known. Wanda has spent her short life taking care of her brothers and trying to please a father who is impossible to please. But that all changes once she is the only way to pay back his debts.
➽ Irinushka - a girl who has been born into royalty but has never known love from her blood family. Irina is still determined to save her people, by any means necessary.
➽ Miryem - a girl who will do whatever it takes to save her family. Miryem is strong, and relentless, and one of the very best characters I’ve ever read in my entire life. And she becomes one of the most feared moneylenders in her village, and she discovers that she awfully good at turning silver to gold. But she is not the only one that notices.
“That part of the old story turned out to be true: you have to be cruel to be a good moneylender. But I was ready to be as merciless.”
The Three Mothers:
➽ A Passed Away Mother who continues to look after her children.
➽ An Adoptive Mother who has unconditionally loved her child from the start.
➽ A Birth Mother who wants nothing more than her child safe and happy.
“A robber who steals a knife and cuts himself cannot cry out against the woman who kept it sharp.”
The Three Marriages:
➽ Filled with Hate because even in 2018 some men want to believe that they know what’s best for a woman, no matter the cost.
➽ Filled with Fire because some people are born into a world without a chance, regardless of money, power, and privilege.
➽ Filled with Cold because protecting the thing you love is sometimes something you’re willing to do anything for.
“...someone had climbed down and looked through our window: someone wearing strange boots with a long pointed toe.”
And these three girls, with their mothers, forced into their three marriages, all come together and create something so beautiful that I don’t even have words to express it. I will say that Miryem is for sure the main character. I will also say that we get to see a lot more points of view than these three girls and their betrothals. And the story is something that is so whimsical, so feminist, and nothing short of an honor to read.
Trigger and content warnings for hard scenes to read about loss of a parent, siblings, and death of children, for extreme parental physical abuse, brief mention of animal deaths, mention of past rape, sexual assault, alcoholism, torture, violence, murder, and use of the word Jew (not negatively, but it still didn’t feel good to read at times).
But one thing I did want to touch upon is how much Judaism plays such an integral role in this story. Miryem and her entire family are Jewish, and from the first to last page this plays a pivotal role in the story. I am not Jewish, but I still loved this inclusion so very much. Also, I’m adding “go to a Jewish wedding” onto my bucket list immediately. To my Jewish friends: please, invite me to your weddings.
Spinning Silver is such a love letter to found families everywhere, too. You guys know I love reading about found families, but all three girls in this book are the epitome of found families. Unconditional love is truly the strongest force in this universe, and not only does this book showcase that, it also celebrates that.
Overall, this just felt like a story that was single-handedly created for me. From the Staryks, to the Winter King, to the traveling between places, to the so very strong female cast, to the magic, to every single word on every single page. I swear, opening this book felt like magic and I never wanted to shut it. And I know I am being rather vague with my synopsis, but I truly believe that this book is probably best to go in not knowing much, and to just experience this otherworldly story firsthand. Without a doubt, this will make my “best of 2018” list and will forever have a place on my favorites of all-time shelf. Thank you so much, Naomi Novik, for a story I will cherish forever. And that last line will take my breath away every reread. Perfection.
“Because that’s what the story’s really about: getting out of paying your debts.”
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The quotes above were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.
Novik introduces three daring female protagonists in this clever re-imagining of Rumpelstiltskin. Here is a realm of magic and mysticism, of cruelty and heartbreak, fringed with glittering ice and populated with creatures carved from the wildest corners of the imagination. The initial chapters titillate with high stakes, compelling characters, and enchanting descriptions of warm food and a forest cloaked in snow, but the narrative is soon bogged down by several ruinous flaws.
Despite encountering wondrous and unexpected forms of magic, Novik's characters are neither astonished nor surprised. Their flat response evokes a perpetual sense of apathy, a problem that's exacerbated by glacial pacing, further compounded by two of the female protagonists having such similar plot lines as to feel redundant.
The final nail in the coffin - or icicle in the heart - is the inclusion of multiple POVs. Novik opens with two primary voices, but more characters are introduced as the story progresses. A change in POV is indicated by an icon of a spinning wheel, but the speaker is not identified and new character voices are dropped without preamble. Not only does this create extra work and confusion, Novik elects to recount scenes from varied perspectives, resulting in even more redundancy.
Spinning Silver holds all the ingredients of a magic spell, but the execution leaves one cold and unsatisfied.
All the stars!! Seriously, go read this book right now! Review first posted on Fantasy Literature:
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.
(I get a Thranduil vibe from the Staryk king, except ... needs more ice)
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.
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 fiery demon is named.
(hat tip to Marvel for the Surtur image)
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.
Initial posts: The author of Uprooted strikes again, with what appears to be a take-off on Rumpelstiltskin. Can't wait for July!!
ETA: I'm dying here. I didn't get the ARC (the publicist was unmoved by my sad email) and my local library, which I thought would jump right on this one, still doesn't have it in their catalog. I HAVE BROKEN DOWN AND BOUGHT THE DANG BOOK. In hardback, no less. Stay posted!
I was so excited for this book because I wanted to read a book by Naomi for so long now. Uprooted is one of the oldest books in my TBR. I didn't know the tale of Rumpelstiltskin so I read it before this out in preparation for this. Then I saw that this was a big book and I didn't know how the author is going to retell such a short story in all those pages.
I started this and was a bit confused by the continuous change in POV, I wish that it was written in 3rd Person because it would have been better. The story started kind of interesting but it was so slow. This is a loose retelling but I could see what she was trying to achieve. And the retelling of the original series almost finished at the point I DNF at. So I don't know what the rest of the book is about.
I lost interest in the story and so went to the reviews to see if others had the same opinions as me but No, I was the only one! I found some 3 and 3.5 stars reviews but no 2 stars, no DNFs so I decided to read a bit more but nothing much happened.
I am going to give this another chance after I read Uprooted, although I usually don't give 2nd chances. If uprooted is good then I know I wasn't in the mood or sth like that but if I didn't like Uprooted then maybe Naomi's style just isn't for me!