Most good ‘fairy-stories’ are about the adventures of men in the Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches. Naturally so; for if elves are true, and really exist independently of our tales about them, then this also is certainly true: elves are not primarily concerned with us, nor we with them. Our fates are sundered, and our paths seldom meet. Even upon the borders of Faërie we encounter them only at some chance crossing of the ways.
While Disney has been in the habit of sanitizing and reducing the fairy tale into children’s entertainment with musical numbers, it has been through fantasy writers that they have retold with more complexity but also been deconstructed, and even subverted. From Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber to Tanith Lee’s Red as Blood and Sheri S. Tepper’s Beauty, traditional fairy tales were explored and retold with the writer’s own creative take. It s good to know that the nuanced mature adaptation of fairy stories is safe in the hands of author Naomi Novik. Though Spinning Silver is a standalone novel, it dips from the well of Eastern European fairy tales and folklore like her previous novel Uprooted. Novik crafts a tale that weaves together the personal stories of multiple women that eventually coalesces into a larger narrative involving the fate of both a fairy and human kingdom.
Miryem is the descendant of a family of moneylenders. Unfortunately her father is not very good at it and lets so many debts go uncollected that she and her family are on the about to go broke themselves. With her mother sick, and her father unable to collect debts, she sets out to do it herself. She becomes quite effective at it and is soon able to secure either coin or trade to take care of her family and provide for them. Using a bag of silver coins, she manages to buy and resell items in the local market where that same bag is now filled with gold coins. This gives her the reputation of being able to turn silver into gold.
Wanda is the daughter of a a farmer who is in such debt that there is no way he can repay it back in his lifetime. He agrees to let her work off her debt at Miryem’s household. While there she is treated more like another member of the family and begins to learn Miryem’s “magic” of being able to count and read. It also gives her a respite from her drunk and abusive father. She is also able to receive extra coin for helping collect debts and secretly saves it to provide for her brothers.
Irina is the daughter of the local duke who would like to marry her to the kingdom’s Tsar. But to him and others, she is not remarkable enough to catch his attention nor particularly beautiful. Yet she does draw the attention of the Tsar for reasons that will become apparent after they are wed. Suffice it to say that though her story starts for us about midway through the series, it helps to tie the narrative together into a whole.
There are two additional POV characters, Stepon, Wanda’s younger brother and Magreta, Irina’s doting but loving handmaid and surrogate mother.
Co-existing beside the main world that Naomi Novik has created is a fairy realm inhabited by the Staryk, human-like beings who have historically raided humans and taken their gold. With them comes bleak and cold winters. Their Staryk king decides to one day leave a bag of silver at the door of Miryem’s home with the expectation that it be returned to him as a bag of gold. Striking a bargain with the Staryk king, will set a chain of events that will embroil the fate of both worlds in danger and will hinge of the guile and bravery of the three women to save both worlds and strike a balanced peace between them.
Novik weaves together a compelling story that feels almost historical in its telling. The human world, though it is completely fiction is grounded in many things based on our world such as Judaism and Christianity. Titles such as a tsar and duke, and Eastern European sounding names draw us into a world that is familiar, but still fantastical. It is has its roots in the tale of Rumpelstiltskin but Naomi Novik takes that as merely the small base to work with and the end result is an incredibly rich novel of storytelling and character development.
Naomi Novik may best be known for her Temerie alternate history fantasy series where dragons and their riders fight in the Napoleonic Wars. Uprooted, based on Slavic tales of Baba Jaga was the author’s first published foray into the fairy tale genre (Novik has written quite a bit of fanfiction and may to this day.) Spinning Silver has a much more expanded cast of characters than Uprooted and the balance of the different POV characters is handled incredibly well for the most part. It may, however, get confusing at times if you take a short break and pick it up again, You may, like me, initially be confused on whose viewpoint you are reading. It doesn’t take very long to figure it out though and your mileage may vary on that. Lisa Flanagan does a very good job at narrating the audiobook, but does not make any major changes in her voice work for the different viewpoint characters.
Spinning Silver also delivers a story that does not pit your standard good vs. evil (okay, there is kind of a big evil character, but tell more would be a spoiler). One of the harshest threats in the novel is not only Wanda’s drunk and abusive father but also his willingness to barter her away, at first to pay off his debts and later to marry her off just for more booze. Her situation is only an example of the underlying story of women in this society that rise above their expected duties in life. In Miryem’s case, it is her assuming the duties of becoming not only the provider for her household but the head of the family’s business. Irina has to be brave in the face of dark forces and assumes a powerful role as Tsarina when her husband is revealed to not be the person rest of the kingdom thinks he is.
Naomi Novik has really accomplished a very special achievement in storytelling with Spinning Silver. It is not just a well spun tale, but as good stories should, it manages to get you emotionally invested int the characters and about their fates. The novel has been nominated for both the 2019 Nebula and the Hugo award. As of this writing, the Hugos have not been awarded yet. It is well deserving of any awards and accolades it has been given. Reading Spinning Silver is Highly Recommended.