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
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’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!
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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I'm officially giving up personhood to become the ghost of a tormented poet in love with melancholy who sits on patches of moss in the moors and recites bad poetry about how amazing this book is!
I love this book so much—the kind of love that is peculiar to inhabiting the perspective of young women with agency and the relationships they form when relying on each other. I honestly feel like I should have experienced this book in some beautiful rose garden under the stars on the biggest bed with silk sheets, laughing maniacally as I burn letters from ex-lovers and eat green tea ice cream with a tiny spoon. That’s how much iconic it was.
So, what's this book about?
“So the fairy silver brought you a monster of fire for a husband, and me a monster of ice. We should put them in a room together and let them make us both widows.”
Spinning Silver is a brilliant subversive take on the fairytale of Rumpelstiltskin cobbled together with elements of Eastern European folklore and uniquely entwining glistening strands of magic, myth and mystery. Deftly woven into the fabric of this story are the lives of three young women: Miryem and Irina whose fates seem sealed to a stifled existence and a loveless marriage, and Wanda to likely the same, but with a good deal more damage from her father done to her along the way. Their lives become intertwined by fate, their weariness of the men who tried to force their heart somewhere it didn’t belong and of thinking themselves odd because it didn’t fit there, and their desire to settle into something perfect, without jagged corners to catch themselves on.
Miryem—daughter of a Jewish moneylender—whose anger and hurt at the gentile townspeople’s mistreatment of her family fused into something cold and unflinching and sharpened into an acumen for quick, high-yield investments. This draws the avaricious attention of the ice-hearted king of the Staryk who promises to make her his queen if she succeeds in turning his Staryk silver into gold three times over and turn her into ice if she fails. Once Miryem is brought to the Staryk’s world, her ability to spin silver into gold manifests itself in the form of actual intrinsic magic and while she’s trapped filling the Staryk's treasure-chests with the gold they yearned for with so much greed, Miryem must also find a way to break the sorcerous winter before her own world fades away forever.
Irina is the daughter of a duke who sought to sand down her edges and mold her into his own desires, pouring out money by the bucketful to her dowry so she would be wife to whoever made him the best offer. She finds herself marrying the tsar himself—the too-pretty son of a condemned witch whose crown was bought by demon-borrowed magic, an evil thing of smoke and hunger that Irina must find a way to not only outwit every day just to live, but also to save her people from its rule.
Wanda whose house was a place so direly poor that they ran out of food before they ran out of winter, and drained to the dregs then put down empty by a father who drunk away their borrowed coin until Miryem stood in their half-frozen doorway laying claim to what’s owed to her family. Finding none, she arranges for Wanda to work as a housekeeper for a four-year stint until she pays off the debt. Wanda finds in the company of Miryem’s family a warm and loving haven, away from her violent father and his flaring temper, and quickly becomes a vital member of the family.
The stories of these three young women gradually begin to converge and languidly unfold into a gripping and beautifully rendered tale that resonated to my core.
I relished every page of this book from first to last. I was hooked, rapturous, wandering through the haze like I have been transported into a fantastical dream. The setting is an enchanting blend of beauty and danger, rendered in languorous and sensuous language. Split between Miryem, Wanda, Irina and then again among other narrators, the leisurely plot flows smoothly and elegantly, weaving all separate threads together with a sure hand, doling out twists and eventually building to a satisfying conclusion.
But it’s the craftly-conceived and fully realized characters that won me over. Twining themes of agency and the duality of human nature, this book succeeds in creating refreshingly human and real protagonists and anti-heroes. These characters are both strong and deeply flawed, and they—even more strikingly—embrace those qualities in themselves and each other. I love how Miryem, Wanda and Irina were expected to be pallid and weak, pitiful things incapable of avenging themselves or anyone and only managing to pick up the tatters and mend them into wearable lives, but their unending anger at a world who refused to be exactly, enduringly the way they wanted it to be propelled them be so much more.
“Let him think he had me, and could have my heart for the lifting of his finger. Let him think I would betray my people and my home just to be a queen beside him. He could hold my hand the rest of the way if he wanted to, as a fair return for the gift he’d given me, the one thing I’d wanted from him after all: I’d lost even the slightest qualm about killing him.”
I also love how we settle very early into a thwarted hatred for the antagonists—the tsar and the Staryk king—only for it to be reshaped and sculpted into the closest thing to empathy and affection there is.
I just love how our perception of the characters ebb and flow over the course of the story, as the book provocatively illustrates the multidimensionality of someone considered to be a monster. Everything simple and solid in the characters' lives is made fluid and nuanced by the introduction of their true motives and feelings. And I think anyone would have found it difficult to be clued in to all the secret halls and trapdoors their souls held, and what each one hid and guarded, and not however grudgingly be moved by it.
Because this is their story, too, all that had been hidden under flames and rivers of gold. And we’ve seen their journeys begin and end and begin again and we witnessed both the birth and culmination of their adventure, and so, by the time we close the book, the boundaries that barred their way have become thresholds made to be crossed, and we’ve walked with all these characters across each one, glancing back, but always moving forward.
“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.”
This is genuinely one of the best and most engrossing books I've read this year and one you definitely do not want to miss!
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“I am not your subject or your servant, and if you want a cowering mouse for a wife, go find someone else who can turn silver to gold for you.”
This was a buddy read with my elvish friend, Maica! ;) I’m so glad that we decided to read this together! <3
Confession Time: I was a bit scared going into this because I loved Uprooted so bloody much. And how on Earth could Naomi Novik possibly improve upon that pure and utter perfection, which included wizards, royals, tree people, and all sorts of other fun characters? Well, somehow, unbeknownst to me, Novik managed to do just that! Now this is a faery tale retelling. Naomi Novik might have just shoved Rosamund Hodge to the side as my favourite author, in regards to retellings!!!
Now before I get into this novel, as someone who was raised as inter-faith (half-Anglican, half-Jewish), I absolutely adored the Jewish representation in this novel!!! Do you know how rare it is, aside from World War Two or Holocaust novels? With the exception of Simon Lewis from The Mortal Instruments, I can’t even remember the last time that I came across a Jewish minor-character in a series, much less having it be a fundamental part of the story!!! From Shabbat to weddings to prayers, I loved the inclusion of Jewish culture!
However, having said that, I would like to point out that there is quite a bit of antisemitism in this novel, as well…So, fair warning, if that’s something that you don’t want to read about.
Spinning Silver is an exquisite and atmospheric, pastoral wintery tale told from the perspectives of not one, not two, but three female protagonists, in addition to a few others along the way. But not to worry, each perspective has a very distinctive voice, and I found it very easy to differentiate between them. I also found that the slow pacing of this novel definitely added to its charm, as you begin to anticipate the various storylines finally coming together.
Miryem is a young Jewish woman whose father is a rather poor moneylender. He is far too generous, by not demanding borrowers to repay their debts, which is not conducive to putting food on the table. Thus, she takes up his occupation in order to save her family from cold and starvation. She is very smart and shrewd, and is more than happy to strike a good bargain!
Wanda is a beautiful girl who comes from an abusive family because her father is a gambling drunkard, who does not contribute to the household at all. He treats his children more like hired help than young adolescents. She eventually finds a positon in Miryem’s household, in order to pay off her father’s debts. She also has two younger brothers, Sergey and Stepon, to feed and support, as well. She is a very strong and responsible older sister.
Irina is the unattractive daughter of a Duke. Since her mother was a descendant of the Staryk (elf/fae-type creature) and because her dowry was magical, Staryk silver, she was able to be married off to the reluctant tsar, Mirnatius. She was very caring towards others and thought quite carefully when making very difficult decisions. She is a rather wonderful tsarina, who inspired loyalty in others.
As was the case with Uprooted (a loose Beauty and the Beast retelling), this is not a strict Rumpelstiltskin retelling either. In fact, I found references to various other faery tales and mythologies, which was very exciting, considering that my knowledge of Slavic folklore is virtually non-existent. It takes place in a setting comparable to Lithuania, with an unexplained magic system, as is the case with most faery tales. Explaining everything would ruin the spell that this novel shall cast on you! ;)
However, if I were being honest, my absolute favourite part of this novel was the family dynamics. There was so much emphasis put on a familial bond. It was so lovely to read about because oftentimes, I’ve found that as stories progress, family members tend to mysteriously disappear or are never actually involved. Neither of which occurs here.
I absolutely loved Spinning Silver and I would definitely recommend this to anyone who enjoys faery tale retellings, especially ones such as Uprooted and The Bear and the Nightingale. Naomi Novik is such an imaginative writer, with such a whimsical writing style that I would hate for you to miss it! …Although for the life of me, I can’t understand why it was released in July! :D
I have a great many conflicting thoughts on this. Review to come on my channel and there will be much to discuss at the BookNet Fest Book Club panel for this book this year!