Book Review: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

It’s been awhile since I’ve last blogged but expect some delays in my blogging schedule. It’s my goal to read a book a week this year and I mostly have kept to that schedule as the year is drawing to the end. But I am a slow reader. I really don’t understand people who can devour more than one book a week. I like to take time to savor the story and to get to know the characters. I like to soak up every word. If I stampede through books, I quickly forget them. I read for an escape, but I also read for an escape that is like a hot cup of tea on a cold winter’s night. Comfort. 

So without further ado, my latest recommendation is “Spinning Silver” by Naomi Novik. I admit I never read “Uprooted,” her hallmark novel, but I have always intended to read her books. As a former fanfiction author, moreover, I was pleased to learn that Novik is one of the founders of an Archive of Our Own and the Organization for Transformative Works. I picked up this particular book on a cruise through a local independent bookstore because I am trying to write more fantasy, and so I am trying to read more fantasy. My usual poisons are science fiction and historical mysteries. I gravitate toward urban fantasy when I do indulge in fantasy, but my tastes lean toward paranormal creatures, set in a time that is not faux-Victorian England with misogynist cultural mores. My criticism of most fantasy is that it is anti-woman. I am tired of that trope, especially considering that the appeal of fantasy for me is that it is an imaginary world that can be better than our own.

“Spinning Silver” blows that standard out of the water. 

It is told primarily from the first-person point of view of women, which of itself is a welcome change. It opens with the protagonist Miryem’s story. She’s the daughter of a family of moneylenders. Her parents were not very good moneylenders; her grandparents, on the other hand, were very good moneylenders. To be a good moneylender, you must harden your heart. And Miryem does, because the villagers hate her good-hearted father and won’t repay their debts. She is tired of the poverty, near homelessness, and ridicule, and takes matters into her own hands. She becomes a very good moneylender, fueled by a sense of injustice and fairness. This is a story of gifts, and transactions, and love, and how what is given always comes with a price, unless it is given in love. 

This is a world that reminded me of Russia, or other similar Slavic cultures. Miryem belongs to a Jewish family and Jewish families are relegated to the Jewish quarter. I guess the non-Jewish community has more of a Protestant faith but this detail was not well fleshed out in the story, perhaps in an effort not to distract from the central narrative. I found the cultural and religious elements of this world intriguing, at any rate.

Anyway, I digress. Miryem gets creative with the ways in which people can repay debts, and her family soon gets so busy that they enlist the help of Wanda and her family. Wanda is a peasant farmer girl with two brothers and an abusive father. The children in this family become servants in Miryem’s household. Chapters alternate between Miryem’s first-person point of view, to Wanda’s, to various other characters, primarily focusing on the female characters. There is also the tsar and a new tsarina, unlikely allies. I found this device jarring at first, because I always had to check who was speaking, but eventually, I enjoyed it, because it gave me an inner perspective of the story that would have been missing had it entirely focused on Miryem’s world. I also appreciated how it developed the characters of the women in the story, even supporting female characters who were not at first glance integral to the furtherance of the plot.

More on the setting: The world of the story is an agricultural one, without technology, set in a world in which magic does still exist, but it’s dying. The Staryk are fairy-like creatures who live in a world of eternal winter, who operate entirely on a transactional moral code — there are no gifts to the Staryk. Everything has a price, in the end, even kindness.

The Staryk, however, have encroached on the world of the mortals too long, raiding and killing and making the winter last longer than it should to protect their kingdom from an unseen adversary. This is a story of contrasts — of winter and summer, of ice and heat, of warmth and love and family versus coldness and debt and standing alone as a hero. It is a story that examines deeper questions of what it means to give and whether heroes need others, need community, to save their people. 

Miryem makes a boast in the presence of the Staryk king, that she can turn silver into gold. He takes her at her word, steals her away for his own, and again come the contrasts of transactions and love. In his world, magic becomes intertwined promises, and what happens to ourselves and those we love when we become bigger than ourselves to fulfill that promise. 

I loved this book. It was a rich, rewarding read and I was instantly drawn in to the characters. Even when I didn’t like some of the characters I understood their motivations and I valued them for their bonds with family and community. At its heart this was a story about love, not money, even though it’s a book about a moneylender. It’s a story about the ways in which we give and receive love, the ways that love grows and fades away, and the role that strong women play in the fabric of the world. 

Find this book: http://www.naominovik.com/spinning-silver/

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