Review – Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

I suspect that, like Uprooted by the same author, Spinning Silver will be nominated for the Nebula and Hugo awards next year.  It is engaging and well-written and will certainly be a good contender for either award.  I especially enjoyed this novel because the central characters are all female and willing to take action to change their lives, and because it isn’t set in the standard Western European fairy tale kingdom, but an Eastern European one, which means that things aren’t as standard.  (Warning: there are spoilers in this review for the novel.)

The novel revolves around three young women, all of them isolated, belittled and scorned, who decide to take what actions they can to improve their lives or the lives of those they love.  Miryem Mandelstam, the Jewish moneylender’s daughter, is the only one who truly feels loved at the beginning of the novel, is also the one who sets things in motion. When the Staryk, winter fairies, begin expanding the winter, her mother becomes sick.  Her father is notoriously bad at collecting the debts owed him, so Miryem goes out and begins doing so to get what is needed to help her mother get well. Her parents are horrified, but aren’t capable of taking over the job, so she continues.

The second of the three young women is Wanda, the daughter of one of the farmers in the nameless town in which the novel begins.  Her mother dies after giving birth to eight children, of whom only three survive: Wanda, Sergey and Stepon. While trying to recover from the final birth, her father Gorek borrows six kopeks from Miryem’s father.  After drinking two and gambling two, he uses the last two to get medicine for his wife, which isn’t enough to save her. Years later, when Miryem begins collecting what her father is owed, Gorek claims he cannot pay.  Deciding that this is probably true, Miryem bargains instead for Wanda’s labor to care for the Mandelstams.

For Wanda, the most passive of the three young women, this is a rescue.  As long as she has to work for Miryem, her father can’t sell her off to be married.  In addition, once she begins to work for Miryem and her family, she discovers love and care that she hasn’t had since her mother’s death.  It is Wanda who uses the metaphor that Miryem can spin silver into gold by watching her employer turn a small investment into a greater profit.

The Staryk king hears this and comes for Miryem.  He first gives her a silver kopek and tells her to turn it to gold.  She goes to the jeweler fiance of her cousin, he turns the silver into a ring, and they sell that ring to Vysnia’s duke in return for a single gold coin.  As is common with fairy tales, the king demands greater quantities of gold. In return, he will not kill Miryem, but will marry her. The second quantity is turned into a necklace and the third into a crown.  All three are bought by the duke to give to his daughter, Irina, to convince the tsar to marry her. Irina is the third of the young women at the center of the novel.

Each of the young women has to face a trial at the hands of the brutal and violent men in control of their lives and, ultimately, wrest control back to their own hands.  Each of them finds strength in community, and in the women, and sometimes the men, in their lives. As with traditional fairy tales, the risks are perhaps greater than the reward, but that reward is not insubstantial.  And in the end, these women rescue each other.

The connection to Rumpelstiltskin is a little on the thin side, but that was never the main charm of this novel anyway.  That is in the women.
Novik, Naomi.  Spinning SIlver.  New York, NY:  Del Rey, 2018. Kindle edition.  Amazon.

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