book review: spinning silver

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
Del Rey, 448 pp.
Published July 10, 2018

DISCLAIMER: I received a free finished copy of this book from Del Rey for review purposes.

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.

Referring to Spinning Silver as a re-telling of Rumpelstiltskin does it an immense disservice. While recognizable elements linger—the power of names and greed, the danger of boasting, and villains who throw shrieking tantrums—Novik fashions all of them into a wholly unique fairy tale of her own. A re-telling might consider familiar stories from a new angle; what Novik achieves in her new novel transcends simple archetypes and childhood lessons, plumbing the depths of duty, love, and humanity in a way that its inspiration did not.

Six perspectives, drawn from characters major and minor, follow the action as it weaves between cities, kingdoms, and enchanted realms. The first and primary voice belongs to Miryem, a young Jewish woman who must meet the prejudice of her neighbors with resolve. Her determination to right the years of insults done to her father, both personal and professional, cannot quite mask an underlying compassion that guides her most influential decisions. This sympathy extends to some unlikely recipients, reminding us that freedom and equality often shine brightest when viewed through the eyes of the oppressed and marginalized among us. Readers who loved Uprooted's Agnieszka will likely adore Miryem as well, who feels in several ways like a spiritual sister to her, though she isn't the only compelling female character present.

The commoner Wanda and the noblewoman Irina are as hemmed in by the expectations foisted on them as young women as Miryem is. Extraordinary changes in their circumstances—precipitated by frost kings and fire demons—provide all three with the opportunity to reclaim control of their lives and conquer unpleasant fates which, as they often do, revolve around arranged marriages. Wanda's delight at the "magic" Miryem works in her account books might seem childlike, but she has a shrewd independence that catches many unawares. Irina benefits from the assurance of her social position, though her father's treatment of her as livestock to be traded fosters a rebellious attitude that later blossoms into razor-sharp ambition.

Other perspectives—a loyal servant; a young boy; a spoiled prince—flit in and out of the narrative less frequently, birds dipping in and out of view of the three women around whom the plot centers. They represent such a variety of ages, religions, and backgrounds that the story cannot help but take on a richer timbre; don't be surprised, however, if one inevitably emerges as a favorite (mine wound up being Miryem!).

As alliances shift and characters start to work at cross-purposes to one another, the designation of villain changes appropriately as well. A high-strung fire demon stays one of the few constants, forever a terrible, unpredictable threat to entire kingdoms. Novik weaves all of these threads into a shimmering new tale brighter than silver and richer than gold. Her prose leaps off the page in a most satisfying example of modern fable-spinning. Spinning Silver is not merely a story you read; this is one book that you feel, down to your bones, and cling to long after the last page has drifted by.


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