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Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
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Book Name: Spinning Silver
Author: Naomi Novik
Publisher(s): Del Rey (US) Macmillan (UK)
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Fairy Tale
Release Date: July 10, 2018 (US) July 12, 2018 (UK)

Spinning Silver is Naomi Novik’s second book that retells and elevates classic folklore and fairy tale elements, spinning and weaving them into something deeper, richer, and original. Spinning Silver isn’t a sequel to 2015’s Uprooted, but it could take place in a neighboring kingdom. It begins as a riff on the Rumpelstiltskin tale but ends as a story of clever, confident women, their bonds to friends and family, bargains, and debts. I read and reread fairy tales when I was younger. Even today, when I travel, I like to come back with a new collection. Once again, Naomi Novik has created a new tale that stands alongside those classics.

Miryem Mandelstam is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders. When her father proves unable to collect on his loans, her family is reduced to poverty. While her fellow villagers take advantage of her father and live comfortably during the harsh winters, Miryem goes hungry, and her sick mother is bedridden. Miryem’s anger freezes and hardens her heart. She goes door to door to collect what her family is owed. She will not hear excuses or accept delay. She will not leave until she has been paid in coin, medicine for her mother, goods that can be quickly sold at a profit in market, or even the housekeeping services of Wanda, whose father drank away the money he borrowed when he wasn’t beating Wanda and her brothers.

Miryem is determined and stubborn and an excellent moneylender. She boasts that she can turn silver into gold, accidentally drawing the attention of the Staryk king. The Staryk are a powerful, dangerous race that exist in a parallel frozen world, and when the king opens a road between worlds, the Staryk raid, destroying homes, killing defenders, and stealing gold. The Staryk king demands Miryem turn his silver into gold three times. If she fails, he will kill her. If she succeeds, he will make her his queen. Although Miryem wants neither of these outcomes, with the help of her cousin’s fiancé, she turns the silver into three pieces of magical jewelry, which she sells to Irinia who then marries the tsar.

When Miryem is taken to the Staryk land, she is forced to transmute warehouses of silver into gold and bring about a perpetual winter for her home. When Irinia learns that the tsar is sworn to a demon whose hunger will never be sated even if it consumed an entire kingdom, she builds a trap while protecting her subjects. And when Wanda’s father arranges her marriage against her will, she must find her freedom while also protecting her brothers. The women must work harder and smarter to find a way out of their impossible situations.

I mentioned above that Spinning Silver is inspired by Rumpelstiltskin. The elements are there if you look for them: a boast, a greedy lord, the power of names, the magic of the number three. But Miryem isn’t the helpless girl, locked up in a tower and traded by her father to the king. She is confident, capable, and clever, able to quickly identify the rules of the system and make the most of them. Similarly, Irinia and Wanda are observant, quick learners, and refuse to back down from the cruelty of the powerful men in their lives.

These are women of agency. They know how fragile their respective positions are, but they fight to protect the people with whom their share a bond. And watching them discover their strengths is one of the best parts of the book. Even some of the men in this story get satisfying character arcs: men who at first appear weak, cruel, or greedy grow and change over the course of the story. As much as I liked the worldbuilding on display in Spinning Silver, it’s the characters that will stick with me. And while some might complain that there are too many points of view, I think the mix of narrators allows Novik to pull a few tricks of her own as the storylines come together in a climactic showdown.

There’s a quote by G. K. Chesterton that goes, “Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” Naomi Novik is an expert in dragons. She wrote nine books in the Temeraire series that brought dragons into the Napoleonic Wars, and she wrote Uprooted, the story of the Dragon in the tower, taking young women from a village. But with Spinning Silver, she does Chesterton one better: She tells children that sometimes it’s not the warrior who can swing the biggest sword or rides the most powerful horse that slays the dragon. Sometimes it’s the woman with the keenest intellect, the fiercest determination, and the deepest love for others.

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