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Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Spinning Silver by Naomi NovikSpinning Silver by Naomi Novik
Published by Random House Publishing Group on July 10th 2018
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 480
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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.

One StarOne StarOne StarOne Star

3 Comments

  1. Your reviews are always well thought-out, analytical, and sensible. That’s why I enjoy reading them.

    I love it when stereotypes are challenged, and I’m thrilled to know that this book is about breaking the Jewish-moneylender trope. (Back when we had Shakespeare in school, Shylock’s portrayal infuriated me. IMO, he was the most realistic and human character in Merchant Of Venice.)

    While I didn’t really enjoy Uprooted (it wasn’t about the writing—it was the protagonist who annoyed me), I think I’ll give this one a try!

    I actually came onto your blog to check if you’ve posted a list of books that you think everyone must read at least once in their lifetime. (So far, I haven’t been able to find such a post. I haven’t checked your YouTube channel yet, though.) If it’s not something you’ve blogged about before, could you please consider doing one? Thanks!

    P.S. I could have messaged this last part privately on GR, but the site says ‘user doesn’t accept messages’. I’m sorry about how cluttered this comment is!

  2. I read and enjoyed Uprooted, but hadn’t yet made a decision about Spinning Silver. There was a lot to like about Uprooted, but my favorite element was definitely the wood-it was such a compelling, creepy, amazingly described setting and antagonist. So you had me at “creepy secret worlds on the other sides of mirrors”. Even though I expect to share some of your concerns about other elements, I have to see those secret worlds are all about, and I think Naomi Novik’s writing is beautiful. Thanks for helping me make up my mind!

  3. I’m in the middle of reading Uprooted, and think that based on your review, I’ll give this one a try. Novik’s writing and characters are very good, fully realized, and the plots engaging, though I do see her tendency to over-complicate. But I love multiple POV stories. Thanks for your terrific, specific reviews!

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