Blogging the Nebulas: Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver Transforms Folklore into Fantasy Gold

Editor’s note: The Nebula Awards are often described as the Academy Awards of SFF literature. Like the Oscar, the Nebula is voted on by the professional peers of the award nominees—members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There are six nominees in the best novel category this year; every two weeks between now and the awards ceremony on May 18, Ceridwen Christensen will be taking a look at each of them, and figuring their odds of taking home the prize.

The pitch:

When I first picked up Spinning Silver, I thought that it was a sequel to Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, the book that took home the Nebula for Best Novel in 2016. The cover designs are very similar, and what little I knew about the plot—an update of the Rumpelstiltskin story—seemed to align with the other book’s reimagined fairy tale vibe.

But Spinning Silver is not so much a sequel as it is… I’m not sure I have an exact term for what it is. Both books take place in a semi-mythic Eastern Europe—maybe after the Kievan Rus, but no later than late medieval—and both play quite seriously (if that’s not an oxymoron) with folkloric tropes.

Spinning Silver primarily follows three young women (though there are chapters from at least a half dozen other perspectives): Miryem, the daughter of a too-kindly moneylender; Irina, the daughter of a boyar with aspirations; and Wanda, the daughter of a serf. At the turn of the first act, Miryem and Irina are both married to powerful men: a fairy king (here called the Staryk) and the Tsar himself. In a fairy tale, these women would either be the prize—the princess in the castle to be won by the lucky youngest son—or their marriages to men above their stations would be their reward for virtuous and pious maidenhood. But here, the marriages are just the start of dangerous and dire trouble. They are not a reward, nor are they rewarding.

Miryem comes to the attention of the Staryk, the otherworldly prince, after she wrests control of the family business. They’re the sole Jewish family in their hardscrabble town, and the only people who can lend money; they’ve long lived on the knife’s edge of necessary outsiders. As  Miryem’s mother lays dying from want and cold —her father ultimately too kind to demand what they’re owed—Miryem takes over, quietly and carefully demanding repayment of their neighbor’s loans. One such loan is to Wanda’s father. The payment she demands —the use of one of his children as servant—is freeing for Wanda, taking her from her abusive household into the gentle kinship of Miryem’s parents. Miryem may be hard-nosed, but her parents are not; she has begun spinning silver into gold, changing her fate and that of those around her with a harshness that is kind.

Irina’s social-climbing father buys a ring, and then a crown made of Miryem’s Staryk silver, which brings her to the attention of the Tsar, who marries her for her magic. The Tsar is a casually brutal young man, inhabited by a spirit of fire and destruction, and all he wants only to consume Irina. She manages to keep him at bay through pluck and wit, and with her affinity for the icy mirror-world that Miryem is trapped in through her marriage to the Staryk prince. Each woman—Miryem, Wanda, and Irina—commands just a little bit of the otherwise beholden spaces they inhabit, but those slivers are cracks that can widen into chasms.

Why it will win:

Spinning Silver is just as accomplished—if not more so—than Uprooted. Though earlier articles in this series have noted many caveats on the prospects of a fantasy novel winning best novel, Novik ticks all the boxes. Contemporary fantasy—books like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods or Jo Walton’s Among Others—tend to win over traditional or epic fantasy… unless the writer is incredibly well established. Ten years ago I would say your last name had to be Bujold or Le Guin to be awarded a Nebula for a traditional fantasy novel, but the new name in that grouping is Novik’s.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I will note again that the Nebula is an industry award—voted on by other professional writers – and standing in the industry matters. Novik’s Temeraire series—nine books deep, about an alt-Regency with dragons—remains incredibly popular, and for good reason: they are both deeply considered and action-driven novels, the kind that make you think even while you’re furiously turning pages. Her turn to the mythopoeic in Uprooted and Spinning Silver frees her from the soft constraints of the alternate history. Spinning Silver shows off her skill as a novelist, drawing a complex narrative out of the most simple fairy tale origins. Truly, she spins gold out of silver.

Why it won’t win:

I’m not a mathematician, so I’m going to have to fake some statistics to go along with my gut reaction, but: I think the Nebula voters will break for someone who hasn’t so recently picked up a Nebula, which Novik has. I don’t have to fake too much: while a few novelists have been awarded in the best novel category multiple times, they tend to come years apart: Connie Willis won in 1993 for Doomsday Book and again in 2011 for Blackout/All Clear; Kim Stanley Robinson took home a Nebula in 1994 for Red Mars and in 2013 for 2312. Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, and its sequel, Speaker for the Dead, won in concurrent years, but that was over 30 years ago (!), and I feel like the voting pool has changed since then.

Fake math aside, I still think Novik has a real shot at another Nebula this year. She’s a novelist at the height of her powers, and her book is an absolute joy to read. The way it takes history and folklore and shakes them into a narrative that is both mythic and personal is incredibly deft. I really hope Spinning Silver turns out to be the second volume of a not-quite-trilogy.

Follow along with this year’s Blogging the Nebulas series here. See previous years’ entries here.

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