Review: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik


Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders… but her father isn’t a very good one. Free to lend and reluctant to collect, he has loaned out most of his wife’s dowry and left the family on the edge of poverty–until Miryem steps in. Hardening her heart against her fellow villagers’ pleas, she sets out to collect what is owed–and finds herself more than up to the task. When her grandfather loans her a pouch of silver pennies, she brings it back full of gold.

But having the reputation of being able to change silver to gold can be more trouble than it’s worth–especially when her fate becomes tangled with the cold creatures that haunt the wood, and whose king has learned of her reputation and wants to exploit it for reasons Miryem cannot understand.

RATING: ☆★☆★☆

I am officially giving up on having a career to sit on warm patches of moss in the moors and recite bad poetry about how amazing this book is.

I love this book so much—the kind of love that is peculiar to inhabiting the perspective of young women with agency and the relationships they form when relying on each other. I honestly feel like I should have experienced this book in some beautiful rose garden under the stars on the biggest bed with silk sheets, laughing maniacally as I burn letters from ex-lovers and eating green tea ice cream with a tiny spoon. That’s how much iconic it was.

So, what’s this book about?

“So the fairy silver brought you a monster of fire for a husband, and me a monster of ice. We should put them in a room together and let them make us both widows.”

Spinning Silver is a brilliant subversive take on the fairytale of Rumpelstiltskin cobbled together with elements of Eastern European folklore and uniquely entwining glistening strands of magic, myth and mystery. Deftly woven into the fabric of this story are the lives of three young women: Miryem and Irina whose fates seem sealed to a stifled existence and a loveless marriage, and Wanda to likely the same, but with a good deal more damage from her father done to her along the way. Their lives become intertwined by fate, their weariness of the men who tried to force their heart somewhere it didn’t belong and of thinking themselves odd because it didn’t fit there, and their desire to settle into something perfect, without jagged corners to catch themselves on.

Miryem—daughter of a Jewish moneylender—whose anger and hurt at the gentile townspeople’s mistreatment of her family fused into something cold and unflinching and sharpened into an acumen for quick, high-yield investments, which draws the avaricious attention of the ice-hearted king of the Staryk who promises to make her his queen if she succeeds in turning his Staryk silver into gold three times over and turn her into ice if she fails. Once Miryem is brought to the Staryk’s world, her ability to spin silver into gold manifests itself in the form of actual intrinsic magic and while she’s trapped filling the Staryk’s treasure-chests with the gold they yearned for with so much greed, Miryem must also find a way to break the sorcerous winter before her own world fades away forever.

Irina is the daughter of a duke who sought to sand down her edges and mold her into his own desires, pouring out money by the bucketful to her dowry so she would be wife to whoever made him the best offer. She finds herself marrying the tsar himself—the too-pretty son of a condemned witch whose crown was bought by demon-borrowed magic, an evil thing of smoke and hunger that Irina must find a way to not only outwit every day just to live, but also to save her people from its rule.

Wanda whose house was a place so direly poor that they ran out of food before they ran out of winter, and drained to the dregs then put down empty by a father who drunk away their borrowed coin until Miryem stood in their half-frozen doorway laying claim to what’s owed to her family. Finding none, she arranges for Wanda to work as a housekeeper for a four-year stint until she pays off the debt. Wanda finds in the company of Miryem’s family a warm and loving haven, away from her violent father and his flaring temper, and quickly becomes a vital member of the family.

The stories of these three young women gradually begin to converge and languidly unfold into a gripping and beautifully rendered tale that resonated to my core.

I relished every page of this book from first to last. I was hooked, rapturous, wandering through the haze like I have been transported into a fantastical dream. The setting is an enchanting blend of beauty and danger, rendered in languorous and sensuous language. Split between Miryem, Wanda, Irina and then again among other narrators, the leisurely plot flows smoothly and elegantly, weaving all separate threads together with a sure hand, doling out twists and eventually building to a satisfying conclusion.

But it’s the craftly-conceived and fully realized characters that won me over. Twining themes of agency and the duality of human nature, this book succeeds in creating refreshingly human and real protagonists and anti-heroes. They are both strong and deeply flawed, and they—even more strikingly—embrace those qualities in themselves and each other. I love how Miryem, Wanda and Irina were expected to be pallid and weak, pitiful things incapable of avenging themselves or anyone and only managing to pick up the tatters and mend them into wearable lives, but their unending anger at a world who refused to be exactly, enduringly the way they wanted it to be propelled them be so much more.

“Let him think he had me, and could have my heart for the lifting of his finger. Let him think I would betray my people and my home just to be a queen beside him. He could hold my hand the rest of the way if he wanted to, as a fair return for the gift he’d given me, the one thing I’d wanted from him after all: I’d lost even the slightest qualm about killing him.”

I also love how we settle very early into a thwarted hatred for the antagonists—the tsar and the Staryk king—only for it to be reshaped and sculpted into the closest thing to empathy and affection there is.

I just love how our perception of the characters ebb and flow over the course of the story, as the book provocatively illustrates the multidimensionality of someone considered to be a monster. Everything simple and solid in the characters’ lives is made fluid and nuanced by the introduction of their true motives and feelings. And I think anyone would have found it difficult to be clued in to all the secret halls and trapdoors their souls held, and what each one hid and guarded, and not however grudgingly be moved by it. Because this is their story, too, all that had been hidden under flames and rivers of gold.

We’ve seen their journeys begin and end and begin again and we witnessed both the birth and culmination of their adventure, and so, by the time we close the book, the boundaries that barred their way have become thresholds made to be crossed, and we’ve walked with all these characters across each one, glancing back, but always moving forward.

“There are men who are wolves inside, and want to eat up other people to fill their bellies. That 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.” 

This is genuinely one of the best books I’ve read this year and one you definitely do not want to miss!

2 thoughts on “Review: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

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