Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Spinning Silver Cover.png

Publisher: Macmillan

Publication Date – 10 July 2018

 

From award-winning fantasy author Naomi Novik comes an innovative novel that repackages the classic fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin and portrays a fresh and much darker take on a story no longer fit for children.

Miryem is the daughter of an ineffective village moneylender, whose kind nature is taken advantage of by their neighbours.  Forced to harden her heart and take over the family business, Miryem is soon successful in her new career and quickly turns her family’s fortunes around.  As her business grows, rumours soon spread that she has the ability to turn silver into gold.  But words have power, and this boast has been overheard by the king of the Staryks, powerful fairies who hold dominion over winter.  The Staryk king sets Miryem an impossible task: to turn three increasing amounts of silver coins into gold.  If she fails, she dies, but if she succeeds, an even worst fate awaits her: marriage to the cruel king in his harsh kingdom of ice.

Forced to find a way to escape her life of captivity, Miryem finds a common cause with Irina, the daughter of a powerful nobleman.  Irina has caught the attention of the Tsar and has used magical Staryk silver to win his hand in marriage.  However, the Tsar has a dark secret that could threaten the realm, and Irina must find a way to survive his terrible powers.  With no other choice, Miryem, Irina and Miryem’s servant, Wanda, embark on a daring quest to free themselves from these terrible forces.

The story within Spinning Silver is told through first person narrations from a variety of the characters featured within the book.  The three main characters, Miryem, Wanda and Irina, each have their own adventures and narrate the vast majority of the book.  Other side characters, such as Wanda’s younger brother, Stepon, and Irina’s old maid, Magreta, also narrate several parts of the book, although these sections are usually tied into the storylines of the main characters.

Naomi Novik is an exciting name in fantasy fiction, best known for her nine Temeraire books set in an alternate version of 19th century Europe in which the English and French fought the Napoleonic War with the help of dragons.  Her latest book, Spinning Silver, is more reminiscent of her 2015 release, UprootedUprooted, which is currently being looked at for a movie adaptation, was a standalone fantasy novel that utilised common fairy tale elements to create a unique and enthralling tale.

Spinning Silver is a dark and gripping fantasy story that is a loose adaption of the story of Rumpelstiltskin.  The book’s main character, Miryem, is this story’s version of the local village girl who runs afoul of the magical creature.  However, rather than being a miller’s daughter whose father claims she can weave straw into gold, Miryem is a money lender and businesswoman who earns gold through her business acumen and mercantile skill.  Her initial challenge to change a material, in this case silver, into gold is done in a much more practical way than making a deal with a supernatural force.  This is a fantastic and modern twist on a key point of this classic story, and Novik follows up with an inventive fantasy narrative which uses other key elements from the original fairy tale to an amazing effect.

Novik weaves several other unique story points from Rumpelstiltskin into this story, and readers will enjoy seeing several memorable elements of a story they have known since childhood inserted into a new and more adult fantasy tale.  For example, in the fairy tale, the imp Rumpelstiltskin appears to the miller’s daughter three times to spin straw into gold.  The first time he appears he demands the daughter’s necklace as payment for this gift, while during his second visit he demands her ring.  Novik reverses this in her story, by having Miryem use the silver she has been given to create a ring and a necklace, which she can then sell to raise the gold she requires.  Another example is the idea of the miller’s daughter having to fill three rooms with gold to marry the king and stay alive.  In Spinning Silver, the fairy king demands that Miryem turn all the silver in three rooms into gold or else be killed.  Novik instils her character with a certain amount of logic, which allows her to come up with a simple and clever solution to this task.  Other parts of the book that have their roots in the fairy tale include the fairy king only allowing Miryem to ask three questions every night, his unwillingness for anyone to know his name and the general death sentence hanging over her head should she fail any of her undertakings.  Novik’s ingenious use of elements associated with Rumpelstiltskin is a highlight of this book which results in a bold and captivating new story.

In many ways, this is a story about exploitation, as the main characters try to overcome their situation and take control of their own lives.  For example, Wanda and her bothers live with an abusive father, and Wanda attempts to use her connections to Miryem to earn enough money to flee.  Another character, Irina, is initially exploited by her father, who sees her as a political tool rather than a daughter.  However, her exploitation by her eventual husband, the Tsar, is far worse, and Irina is forced to think of some inventive ways to manipulate the Tsar and his demonic ally in order to gain her freedom and keep her people alive.  While Miryem does have a loving family, the entire village exploits Miryem and her family.  Miryem is forced to become a hardened moneylender and then must outsmart the Staryk king to stay alive.  Watching the characters change their nature and way of thinking in order to overcome the people using them is a fantastic piece of this story.

Like her previous book, Uprooted, Novik has set her book in an Eastern European landscape, during an unknown period of history.  Despite the Germanic origins of Rumpelstiltskin, the setting of Spinning Silver feels somewhat more like Russian or Slavic in origin, with Tsars and Russian currency included in the narrative.  The dark, snow-filled forests that surround the story’s towns and cities are the perfect backdrop for this story, and Novik does an amazing job of conveying the cold and hidden menace that they contain.  Several of the characters in the book, including Miryem, are Jewish, and Novik spends time exploring how this group were treated and exploited.  There are many examples of the other characters, especially the inhabitants of Miryem’s village, treating these characters poorly, which reflects the poor treatment that the Jewish population suffered throughout Eastern Europe, while also focusing on the role they often played as moneylenders.  Overall, the dark Eastern European setting helps turn the usual child-friendly story into something colder and more hostile, and it is fascinating to see Novik’s supernatural and fantasy elements included in this historical situation.

Naomi Novik has completely reinvented one of our oldest and best-known fairy tales into a deeply fascinating and captivating story.  This book highlights Novik’s fantastic understanding and utilisation of key elements of the original tale and makes full use of its deeply haunting setting and compelling dark twists.  Spinning Silver is an excellent outing from Novik, who once again shows why she is one of the most creative minds in fantasy fiction.

My Rating:

Four stars