I was afraid. He wore spurs on his heels and jewels on his fingers like enormous chips of ice, and the voices of all the lost souls in blizzards howled behind him. Of course I was afraid.
But I had learned to fear other things more: being despised, whittled down to one small piece of myself at a time, smirked at and taken advantage of.
Spinning Silver is an absolute wonder. It’s a tale that manages to weave the perspectives of a Jewish moneylender’s daughter (and moneylender in her own right), a poor serf seeking escape from her abusive father, and an unlikely tsarina, all while making their points of view distinct, relevant, and poignant. It’s a Rumpelstiltskin retelling that manages to stay faithful to a timeless fairytale tone while spinning out the tale into something both refreshing and nuanced. Meanwhile, it features fantastic elements both subtle and intense, ruminations on what makes a family, and great character development.
(Okay, so this is really extra, but before I get into the nitty-gritty of my review, I’m gonna throw out a recommended piece of music to accompany this book. I listened to it myself while reading and it just fit the mood perfectly for me. It’s Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 12, Movement II. The version I like is by the St. Petersburg String Quartet, but here’s a version that I also think interprets the piece beautifully. Here’s another wintry classical music recommendation, while I’m at it.)
I’m an unabashed character reader. Plot aside, if the characters of a book resonate with me, it’s very likely I’ll enjoy it. Thankfully, the characters here hit all the right notes for me. (Just…picture me doing the chef’s kiss thing while reverently saying, “exquisite,” and you’ll have a general idea of how much I loved them.)
First off, there’s Miryem. Bitter (and self-awarely so) about the prejudice facing her family as Jewish residents of a small, poor village, she grows increasingly frustrated at the sight of her neighbors borrowing money from her father without ever paying him back. After the situation grows dire and her family lacks the resources to even stay healthy, she takes matters into her own hands and collects the debts herself.
Through debt collecting, Miryem meets and hires Wanda, a young woman who fears her father and dreads being bartered off as a wife.
I was a pig at the market he had decided to buy. He was hoping I fattened up well and gave him many piglets before it was time to make bacon.
Her narrative was deeply affecting, and I loved the way Novik wrote her, with spare but resonant prose. The story also focuses on Wanda’s siblings and how their journey runs alongside that of Miryem’s family.
The third central female protagonist is Irina, the quiet and cloistered daughter of a local lord. Irina’s sections were some of my favorites – her wry perceptive voice and her commitment to play the long game against formidable forces (both supernatural and political) were engrossing to read. The magical side of her heritage adds another dimension to her character and gives novel an extra oomph of wintry magic.
What I really wanted was the silver necklace, cold around my neck, even though it was brining my doom; I wanted to put it on and find a long mirror and slip away into a wide dark winter wood.
Her development throughout the story is A+. Irina is a type of fantasy heroine I love seeing: one who may not be physically strong or exceptional in any particular martial or magical skill, but who nevertheless remains committed to carrying out their mission and following their own internal compass.
The novel focuses heavily not only on these heroines, but on the characters surrounding them. Mothers and motherhood receive a large focus, as does the theme of families both born into and created. Through Miryem’s parents and grandparents to Irina’s grandmother figure, Magreta, and Wanda’s relationship growth with her brothers, the idea of family is consistently explored. Also explored is the meaning and value of forging relationships with people initially foreign to a person, of welcoming and sheltering them and showing them warmth.
There are men who are like wolves inside, and want to eat up other people to fill their bellies. This is what was in your house with you, all your life. But here you are with your brothers, and you are not eaten up, and there is not a wolf inside you. You have fed each other, and you kept the wolf away. That is all we can do for each other in the world, to keep the wolf away.
Another theme that’s emphasized is that of pride and self-determination. While the Staryk king has an ego of truly epic proportions, and while Miryem finds this off-putting and/or infuriating for much of the novel, that pride of his isn’t simply left to lie unexamined.
“Lady, I will be proud then,” he said, “and before also; I set no limits on my pride.”
Miryem gets her due and then some against this smug af faerie king and gives him the what-for in a way that’s perfect for her character. I loved it, and I loved all the tension created by it. And I’ve gotta admit, I ended up really fond of him in the same slighly-abashed way that I’m fond of the Goblin King in Labyrinth. I know he’s kind of weird and capital-P Problematic, but also, I can enjoy media while being critical of it, y’know?
To keep up this wow, Mo, you really liked the themes in this novel, didn’t you? train, I’m gonna mention that I loved the importance placed on the naming of things. Of how giving someone or something a name, or telling a person a name, or knowing the name to call a feeling can give it power. It’s a theme I originally came to love because of Ursula K. Le Guin‘s Earthsea cycle, and I’ve never stopped loving it since.
Now I’m gonna address some stuff that I liked, but that some folks might find off-putting: the pacing.
I’ll grant that the opening section of the novel, in which Miryem determines to carry out her father’s debt-collecting and becomes connected to Wanda and Irina, definitely takes its sweet time developing. If I recall correctly, one of my updates at about 100 pages in was remarking that I loved the characters but wondered when the plot would pick up. Funnily enough, the answer was that it would pick up shortly after that, at maybe 120 pages in.
That’s nothing to sniff at – 120 pages of a 460-odd page novel is a big commitment to make when a reader hasn’t seen any major things begin to move and conflict with each other. Not every reader will enjoy the slow build-up of character, setting, and circumstance that leads to the narrative pay-off in the latter half of the novel, and that’s perfectly fine. For those who don’t enjoy more slow, contemplative fantasies, I’ll just say that maybe saving this novel for an introspective mood would be a good idea. There’s definitely action in the novel, but it takes a long time for it to pick up and for the story to show its true colors.
I don’t even know how to end this review, if I’m being honest. It captured my imagination from its opening and still hasn’t let go of it, weeks after reading its closing sentence. I actually think I’ll try to purchase a copy of the UK edition of this and Uprooted (as I prefer those covers), which I rarely (if ever) do once I’ve borrowed a book from the library. This is just one of those books that strikes a chord with me on a deeply personal level, and I know I’ll love it for years to come. I hope you do, too.