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Spinning Silver

Review

Spinning Silver

The retelling of fairy tales in contemporary form is nothing new. Both the classic and updated versions are at their best when they give glimpses into the darkest and brightest aspects of humanity.

SPINNING SILVER by Nebula Award-winning author Naomi Novik does just that. In it, she gives readers a variant of the Rumpelstiltskin story, which centered on a woman taken captive and forced to spin straw into gold. She is assisted by a strange man-like creature, but only because he wants something in return. It is not until she learns his name that she can escape from his poor bargains and her original captor. Novik takes some of the basic elements of this dark and familiar tale, reworking them to create a novel about empowerment, bonds of servitude and of loyalty, unexpected friendships, and more. She sets all this in a world that seems just recognizable, but is threaded through with magic and mystery.

"Contrasting heat and cold, Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, men and women, power and subservience, and then wonderfully turning it all around again, SPINNING SILVER is both an entertaining and thoughtful novel."

Miryem Mandelstam is the granddaughter of a rich and powerful moneylender and the daughter of a poor and unsuccessful one. When her father’s kindness and lack of business acumen threaten the health and survival of her family, she takes matters into her own capable hands: collecting payments, making trades and updating the ledger, all of which starts to bring her and her parents out of poverty. She even begins to earn enough to hire an assistant, a young woman named Wanda whose father owes the Mandelstams but is unable to pay his debt. Working with Miryem and her parents gives Wanda freedom from her abusive father’s house and an opportunity to create a better life for herself and her two brothers. She grows confident in her intelligence and skills. Although she had been taught (like most people she knew) to distrust or even revile Jews, she finds comfort, compassion and hospitality in the Mandelstam household.

Fortunes seem to be changing for Miryem and her parents. But her accomplishments have attracted unwanted and dangerous attention as well. The people of Vysnia and beyond live in fear of the Staryk, a race of magical winter folk who bring with them violence and terror when they leave their frozen kingdom for the sunlit world. The Staryk king stalks Miryem until he finally takes her away to his mountain home, making her his queen without her consent and forcing her to turn all his silver to gold. While Miryem toils for the king and plans her escape, Wanda stays with the Mandelstams, working and caring for them and her brothers. When her father loses control of his temper for the last time, it is with the Mandelstams that Wanda seeks refuge.

All the while, the plain and lonely daughter of a greedy duke, recently wed to the tsar with the help of some magical charms, is coming to terms with her husband’s terrible secret and her own nascent powers. To free herself from the ravenous desires of a demon, Irina must choose between two terrible outcomes. Then, to save the people she never wanted to rule, she must make a terrible choice once again.

The stories of all three women --- Miryem, Wanda and Irina --- interweave, as with their actions they control the fate of two worlds and all who live in them. The result is an exciting (though at times a bit slow) and provocative read.

SPINNING SILVER is fantasy light, but the ideas that Novik explores are serious and important. There is magic in this book, but it creates atmosphere and tension without driving the entire story. More important than the fact that Miryem can change Staryk silver to gold is that she has a valuable skill for which she is taken captive, and her loss of autonomy and power is something to be rectified. The same is true for Wanda and Irina. This is a novel about women who were assumed to be weak and passive but turned out to be strong, assertive, wise and more valuable than any of the particular skills they possess. The world in which the human characters live seems all too real --- a Russian or Eastern European kingdom of toil, long winters and anti-Semitism --- and Novik does a great job blending the elements of historical authenticity with those of her imagination.

Contrasting heat and cold, Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, men and women, power and subservience, and then wonderfully turning it all around again, SPINNING SILVER is both an entertaining and thoughtful novel.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on July 13, 2018

Spinning Silver
by Naomi Novik

  • Publication Date: July 10, 2018
  • Genres: Fantasy, Fiction
  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Del Rey
  • ISBN-10: 0399180982
  • ISBN-13: 9780399180989