I don’t often pre-order books. I like to have them in my hands before deciding to buy a physical copy or not. But when it comes to Naomi Novik, I want to get her books as soon as possible. So when Spinning Silver became available for pre-order, it didn’t take me long to hit the buy button.
Miryam comes from a line of money-lenders. Only, her father has trouble collecting the debts he’s owed. With her family at the edge of poverty, Miryam takes action. She takes over collections and begins reinvesting the money. Soon, she gains a reputation for turning silver into gold—a reputation that earns the attention of the Staryk.
The Staryk are cold fey creatures and they are not to be messed with. When the Staryk king gives Miryam the impossible task of turning his silver into gold, her path crosses with those of a peasant girl named Wanda and the duke’s daughter Irina.
With the grim Staryk king on one side and a dangerous Tsar on the other, the three unlikely allies set out on a desperate search for safety and peace. But a secret evil threatens the worlds of humans and Staryk alike, and the girls soon find themselves with the fate of two kingdoms resting on their shoulders.
Let’s get into it…
Every time I get tired of fairy tale retellings, I need look no further than Naomi Novik’s writing to remind me there are still unique stories out there. Spinning Silver takes Rumpelstiltskin and, through detailed descriptions, memorable characters, and shifting perspectives, breathes new life into the tale.
Rumpelstiltskin was one of my favourite fairy tales as a kid. But back then, I didn’t really analyze the meaning of the story. I just liked that the girl tricked her way out of a bad situation. And I hadn’t really thought about the story at all after I grew out of reading picture book fairy tales. But it only took a single page of Spinning Silver to make me reexamine the story. This is because Novik immediately introduces her Jewish protagonist, Miryam, and recasts Rumpelstiltskin not as a story of outsmarting a trickster, but as a story about skipping out on debts. By having a Jewish MC, Novik calls into light the antisemitism of the original tale. She explores race, culture, and debtor/collector relationships throughout the novel.
Since Spinning Silver is not a straight retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, it’s difficult to align Novik’s characters with specific characters in the fairytale. Miryam, for example, is a money-lender and therefore demands her payments. But she is also the one who needs to spin silver into gold to appease a king. The Staryk king aligns with the Rumpelstiltskin king since he wants gold. Yet he’s also a character with a secret name. Then there’s Irina, who enters a potentially prosperous marriage only to face danger in said marriage thanks to a deal between a mortal and an evil force. And then there are characters who don’t have many similarities to the original fairy tale at all, like Wanda. She goes to work for Miryam and hopes to gain her independence in the process.
While the three girls provide the bulk of the narration, the novel also weaves in a handful of other perspectives, allowing for secondary characters to relay information when that information is something that the three main characters don’t experience firsthand. In less talented hands, these instances of secondary character narration might seem out of place. But Novik manages them well and they build suspense and add intrigue as the story progresses.
I will admit that I had a bit of trouble following some perspective switches because, other than an ornamental marker, there are no indicators of perspective switches. It is sometimes necessary to read a paragraph or two before it is clear who is narrating. However, one does grow used to this. I believe this structure ultimately supports the idea that a single side to a story isn’t the whole story. This structure creates a richer tapestry and allows us to see the humanity in even the less savoury characters.
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, so I’ll just say the novel takes it’s time to establish characters and build the word and then launches into a meaty, absorbing tale. There’s evil to be overcome, love to be fought for, and sacrifices to be made. It’s quite easy to find yourself wrapped up in the snowy Staryk kingdom, the dark woods, or the luxury of royal households.
Final thoughts: Spinning Silver is nothing short of magical. Novik’s characters are fully realized. Her writing is beautiful. Her world building is fantastic. If you liked Uprooted, you’ll enjoy Spinning Silver too.