by Naomi Novik
Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders, but her father’s inability to collect his debts has left his family on the edge of poverty–until Miryem takes matters into her own hands. Hardening her heart, the young woman sets out to claim what is owed and soon gains a reputation for being able to turn silver into gold.
When an ill-advised boast draws the attention of the king of the Staryk–grim fey creatures who seem more ice than flesh–Miryem’s fate, and that of two kingdoms, will be forever altered. Set an impossible challenge by the nameless king, Miryem unwittingly spins a web that draws in a peasant girl, Wanda, and the unhappy daughter of a local lord who plots to wed his child to the dashing young tsar.
But Tsar Mirnatius is not what he seems. And the secret he hides threatens to consume the lands of humans and Staryk alike. Torn between deadly choices, Miryem and her two unlikely allies embark on a desperate quest that will take them to the limits of sacrifice, power, and love.
Sometimes a book just sweeps you away, and that’s exactly what happened with me and Spinning Silver.
I’ve mentioned before how I didn’t love Uprooted as much as I hoped I would and didn’t think I’d try another of Naomi Novik’s fairy tale retellings until I discovered her next one would be inspired by Rumpelstiltskin. Rumpelstiltskin is my favourite fairy tale and I’ve been waiting for a novel-length version of it for years. Spinning Silver didn’t disappoint.
This is very much a book inspired by the original fairy tale rather than a retelling of it, but there were so many tips of the hat to the original tale and this story was so well executed that I didn’t care about the differences.
We follow Miryem, Irina and Wanda, three young women who end up getting caught up in this tale of debts, exchanges and self-worth. Unlike Uprooted, where I thought the world building wasn’t as strong as it could have been, Spinning Silver felt like I was reading a historical novel set in Russia with fantastical elements rather than a fantasy novel, and I loved that vibe.
Miryem is the daughter of money lenders, from a Jewish family who are the only Jewish family in their town. For years she’s watched her father unable to collect the money that they’re owed because if he becomes too unlikable the whole town will turn against them; they want to borrow his money without ever paying it back, and are content to watch his family starve as a result because they’re Jewish.
As Miryem grows older she also grows tired of this hypocrisy and ends up taking over from her father, becoming a savvy businesswoman that her neighbours won’t mess with. When the lord of the Staryk, fae creatures who bring about the winter, overhears Miryem’s claim that she can turn silver into gold, he sets her three tasks to do just that and, in return, he will make her his queen.
Wanda is one of Miryem’s neighbours, the only daughter of a poor and abusive farmer who borrowed money from Miryem’s father that he then wasted on drink. When Miryem comes knocking for the money and it’s clear he’ll never earn enough to pay it back, Wanda is ordered to go to Miryem’s house each day and work off the debt her father made.
Much like the rest of the town, Wanda has long been suspicious of Miryem’s family – when they speak Hebrew, Wanda assumes they are casting magic – but once she’s in Miryem’s employ, Miryem teaches Wanda how to use numbers and aid her in her business. Wanda grows close to Miryem’s family, and soon finds herself able to save a little money which she eventually aims to use to get away from her father before he sells her to another man.
Irina is the daughter of a lord in the city. Technically she is the ideal age to be considered a bride for the young Tsar, but it’s not an ambition she or her father has for her. She’s rather plain and has always been something of a disappointment to her father because she wasn’t a boy.
Through her mother’s line Irina has Staryk blood in her veins, and when her father encounters Miryem in the market selling jewellery made from the Staryk silver she’s been challenged with exchanging for gold, he realises that, with the jewellery enhancing her Staryk other-worldliness, Irina has a chance at snatching up the Tsar after all. The Tsar, however, isn’t entirely what he seems; he’s young and spoiled, but something much darker lingers beneath his skin that Irina soon finds herself having to protect the entire nation from.
This is a really difficult book to try and sum up. From the very first page, though, I was invested. This novel does such a wonderful job of exploring a woman’s role in the world, whether she’s upper class or lower class, and the sacrifices she’s willing to make, the debts she’s willing to sow, in a world in which she must outwit all those who would seek to trade her for gold or livestock.
I’ve seen a few fairly beige reviews of this book that have made me come to the conclusion that if you loved Uprooted, you might not love this one as much, and that makes me kind of sad. Some of the reviews I’ve seen have complained about the lack of romance in this book, but romance isn’t the point of this book at all; this book is about its women, how they help one another and how, though they might disagree, they still respect and understand each other’s decisions. They live in a world in which there are no quick and easy answers and they all have tough decisions to make, and that’s what I loved about it. These women felt so real to me.
Miryem, in particular, I loved, not only because I loved how ruthless she can be and how clever she is, but because I loved how Novik explored Judaism through her. The Jewish faith is represented so lovingly here that I felt embraced by it; when Miryem attended her cousin’s wedding and danced, I wanted to be there dancing with her because the room was full of such warmth from a group of people whose history so often involves them being vilified and turned away.
The Staryk have long used their winter road from their realm into the mortal realm to pillage and plunder mortal houses, stealing gold and raping women, and when the victims of these vicious attacks can’t turn on the Staryk they often turn on the Jews instead. There was so much history in this one book, so much understanding of who people will turn on when they’re terrified and hungry, and it was handled beautifully.
There are several narrators in this book, and I know some readers were put off by it and I can understand why, but I think all those narrators needed to be there to tell this story. Considering spinning is such an integral part of Rumpelstiltskin, I thought it was apt that this story felt like a tapestry being woven by different voices who would pick up the thread and add their point of view before it passed on to the next storyteller.
Ultimately, I thought Spinning Silver was a masterful, superbly-crafted story about debts, power, responsibility and being remembered for your actions rather than your words. I loved it.