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
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 stay 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.
This novel is pure escapism; it is enchanting, mystical and, most importantly, a fantastic piece of writing. I loved it. It’s the best book I’ve this year so far. Go read it!
I’m a critic but I found nothing to critique here. And for me that says a lot. I often find it hard just to sit back and enjoy a story without pulling it apart and dissecting all the elements of the book. It’s just want happens when you’re and English student. You consider the characters, the themes and everything the writing is trying to convey. With this, however, I was taken away by the majestic nature of the fairy-tale plot. It all just fitted together so perfectly and slid into an ending that left me feeling warm inside.
The novel is an amalgamation of fairy tales, all distinctively eastern European in feel, though they are fleshed out and twisted into something resembling a complex and compelling story that is not limited by the standard tropes fairy tales demand. This is not a novel about love; it is one about survival in a cut-throat world where the rich and powerful exploit the poor, weak and helpless. The peasants starve in the winter as their lands are raided by the mystical Staryk whilst their Tsar hordes the entire kingdom’s wealth and basks in his own splendour. He does little to help his own people.
As such, people have to learn to survive and defend themselves in an unjust world. There are no heroes, only people who are willing to be brave in the face of tyranny. And tyranny can come in many forms, and often those who are supposed to love and protect us become the worse of the lot. Daughters learn to overthrow their fathers and make their own paths in the world. Miryem learns to turn silver into gold by taking up her father’s money lending business, and eventually what appears to be a natural aptitude for business develops into a fully-fledged magical ability that captures the attention of an Ice King.
From here the plot only improves. There are a multitude of characters and point of views though they are all linked and brought together into such a powerful ending. As Miryem is taken back to the Staryk kingdom, the Tsar daemon of rage and fire seeks to melt the lands of always winter. Two conflicting powers come crashing together, as the veil is lifted revealing the truth of a character shrouded in misunderstanding and ice. Just because a people operate in a different way, it does not make them inherently evil.
Spinning Silver is so much better than Uprooted because it is consistent; it sticks with the same themes and develops them until the very end of the story rather than shifting into a radical new plot line half-way through the story. As such the magic begins on the very first page and stays until the very last- I highly recommend it!
Review to come!
I’ve had Naomi Novik’s work on my reading list for a long time, but this was my first time picking up anything by her. I loved the Rumpelstiltskin story as a child, so when I heard that she was writing a retelling of it, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy—and now, it made me wonder how I ever lived without the incredible worlds of magic and fantasy she crafts.
I wasn’t sorry they didn’t like me, I wasn’t sorry I had been hard to them. I was glad, fiercely glad.
The story alternates perspectives, primarily between the women in the story, with its focus resting mainly on Miryem (the tax collector’s daughter), Wanda (Miryem’s hired help), and Irina (the local duke’s daughter). Gradually, we also see perspectives from the tsar, Wanda’s youngest sibling, and Irina’s nursemaid, and while the shifts in narrators offer potential for chaos and disjointed storytelling, Naomi Novik shows off every bit of the necessary skill to make it work.
They would have devoured my family and picked their teeth with the bones, and never been sorry at all. Better to be turned to ice by the Staryk, who didn’t pretend to be a neighbor.
Miryem is by far my favorite character in this story: she is cold, clever, and ruthless when she needs to be, but never without justification, and never unfairly. Her perspective is not only the one I enjoyed the most for entertainment’s sake (especially when she interacts with the winter feyfolk, the Staryk), but also for the empowerment her narrative offers. Miryem’s family is Jewish, and there’s a lot of commentary made throughout the story to remind the reader of the pains Jews have been through and the judgments they have faced, and continue to face, in their daily lives.
“My people will go into the flame with their names locked fast in their hearts; you will not have that of them, nor me.”
More than anything, though, I think Spinning Silver is a story of feminism and independent, strong-willed women. Each of our three most important narrators suffer under a man who has, intentionally or otherwise, controlled and/or ruined their life: for Miryem, it’s the lazy father who forced them into starvation; for Wanda, it’s the abusive, drunkard father who wants to sell her off for spirits; and for Irina, it’s the controlling, uncaring father and the terrifying man he wants to marry her off to. Despite their respective circumstances, these young women all learn how to work together and to fight their way out of one mess after another.
But it was the same choice, every time. The choice between the one death and all the little ones.
Beyond the representation and strength, Spinning Silver is just a damn good fantasy tale. It mimics the Rumpelstiltskin story just enough to draw in old fans, but Novik’s writing takes liberties endlessly to make it her very own story. The writing voice in and of itself is magnificent; I found myself highlighting so many passages just because the phrasing she uses and the scenery she paints gave me chills. This is also one of the most atmospheric wintry stories I’ve ever read in my life.
“A power claimed and challenged and thrice carried out is true; the proving makes it so.”
If I haven’t convinced you yet, I’ll also tell you that there’s a delightful enemies-to-lovers twist (you’ll have to read it to find out which girl it involves, though, because I’m not telling!), sweet families and sibling bonding moments for days, and so much tension that I’m positive you won’t want to put it down until you’ve found out how it all ends.
Because that’s what the story’s really about: getting out of paying your debts.
Trigger warnings for anti-Semitism, sexism, parental abuse, family death, and alcoholism.
Thank you so much to Del Rey for providing me with this beautiful finished copy in exchange for an honest review!
You can find this review and more on my blog, or you can follow me on twitter, bookstagram, or facebook!
Mwahahahahahahahahahaha!!!!!! I read this early!!!!! >:)
It’s definitely the spiritual successor of UPROOTED. It has all the heart, family, riveting magic you could ask for, and a gorgeous slow burn/unveiling of feelings that will make you desperate to turn the page and loathe to finish. Also. I loved the ending. It’s definitely up there with top 10 book endings.