My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Note: mild spoilers (just a little more than a dust jacket summary and list of characters)
Naomi Novik’s modern fairy tale, Spinning Silver, draws from Indo-European folklore, especially the story of Rumpelstiltskin. Novik is both upfront and subversive about the story’s roots, starting the novel by retelling the story of the miller’s daughter from the perspective of her tragically-worldly young protagonist, Miryem, who facing starvation and her mother’s illness becomes the debt collector for her inept money-lending father, Panov Mendelstam.
Miryem’s great ability to collect debts hardens her, while also garnering a reputation that she has an uncanny talent of creating gold, “spinning the silver” kopeks owed to her family and her opportunistic profits in the marketplace into gold zloteks. Both of these aspects of her development have consequences throughout the story. I’m going to keep the spoilers to the bare minimum to discuss my favorite aspect of the story (the author’s point-of-view flipping), so aside from the summary of the plot setup in the next paragraph, I’ll focus on the art of the storytelling rather than the story.
In both this story and her 2015 novel Uprooted, Novik creates a mortal world on the edge of a perilous magical world. There it was The Wood, and here it is the Staryk World, a wintery land ruled by a king who lusts for gold and whose raiders plunder the Sunlit World, the land of Spinning Silver’s mortal protagonist. Miryem’s spinning draws the attention of the Staryk king, the parallel of Rumpelstiltskin, who provides magical silver and tasks her with three transmutations. She takes the silver to her grandfather’s city and pays her cousin Isaac to model a ring, a necklace, and a crown, which sets up the rest of the story involving the Tsar (along with his demon Chernobok) and the reluctant bride Irina.
Spinning Silver is a feminist text (it passes the Bechdel test hundreds of times and even Miryem’s grandfather is woke: “Gold doesn’t know the hand that holds it” he says to counter his wife’s assertion Miryem’s work is unseemly) and subverts class tropes both in the mortal world (with the Vitkus family and Magreta) and the Staryk world (with Flek and Rebekah, Tsop, and Shev.) The efforts of the disenfranchised of power and impoverished are crucial throughout the story and shake the aristocracy. It is also a story of otherness, both in the magical-vs-non-magical sense and, fundamentally, in its depiction of how necessarily careful are the interactions between Jews and the Gentiles surrounding them.
When Miryem is inclined to tell their neighbors about the Staryk, Panova Medelstam teaches by using a story about the Yazuda village where the houses of Jews were spared and people suspected they had betrayed them by dealing with the Staryk. She says, “And now there are no Jews in Yazuda.” Miryem reflects this “wasn’t elves or magic or absurdity…[but] something I understand very well. This theme of Jewish otherness returns many times throughout the story and is brilliantly portrayed, especially through the use of Stepon’s point-of-view. Stepon is a child already indoctrinated to discriminate against the Mendelstams who learns through kindness and shared experience to evolve. This was a brilliant use of point-of-view.
Novik uses first-person point-of-view with minute psychic distance, changing the narrator throughout the story. There are 69 separate sections spread across 25 chapters. 28 feature Miryem, Wanda Vitkus gets 14, Tsarina Irina has 13, young Stepon tells 7, Magreta (Irina's chambermaid) contributes 5, and Mirnatius (a villain) shares his possessed tale twice. Each character has an original voice and critical perspective. Irina, for example, allows us to perceive how women are treated like commodities in aristocratic marriages, though through brilliant collaboration they can invert their situation.
The transformation of the characters is significant. I’ve already mentioned Stepon, but Wanda and Miryem end up radically different from the story’s beginning. Miryem, the brilliant debt collector who complains about clients who do not adhere to bargains, for example, gets an important lesson that a little flexibility is better for everyone. Foreshadowing, such as leaving tunnels filled with silver around, pays off throughout the tale. The novel is well-constructed and Novik’s conversational, easy-voiced storytelling is warm and relatable.
I recommend Spinning Silver for all these reasons but mostly because it is a well-told, great story that is a lot of fun. Novik just keeps getting better. I can’t wait for what comes next.
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