Published by Random House Publishing Group on July 10th 2018
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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.