Spinning Silver Turns Age-Old Tales Into Gold

Three years after her last novel left fairy tale conventions, well, Uprooted, Naomi Novik returns with a spiritual successor, Spinning Silveranother fantasy inspired by age-old legends. This is not a sequel, nor is it set in the same world as Uprooted; it is a sister book similarly grounded in Slavic folklore and culture.

Uprooted was always going to be a hard act to follow—it was a bestseller, it won the Nebula Award, it was the runner up for the Hugo—but I don’t believe I’m overstating things when I say that Spinning Silver is, if anything, even more enchanting.   

The book opens on Miryem, the daughter of a poor Jewish moneylender. Her father, too soft-hearted by half, has let his family’s silver trickle into his neighbors’ households with no hope of repayment, put off from demanding repayment by excuse after excuse. When Miryem’s mother falls ill, her daughter hardens her heart and does what her father won’t, calling in long-overdue debts to put food on the table and fuel in the stove. It soon becomes clear Miryem has no small talent for her father’s trade, and in a moment of ill-timed pride, she brags, while riding through a snow-covered forest, that her judicious investments transform her family’s silver into gold.

This remark proves to be her undoing, for the winter woods are stalked by the Staryk, a cold elfin race as famous for their brutality as for their love of gold, and they are listening closely. When a Staryk man shows up on Miryem’s doorstep with a pouch of fairy silver and a request that she turn it to gold (with a heavily implied or else), Miryem has no choice but to make her boast into truth, magically or otherwise.

Elsewhere, Wanda, an impoverished farmer’s daughter, has come into the service of Miryem’s family in order to pay off her father’s debts. Crushed under the thumb of a brutish patriarch since the death of her mother, Wanda sees the silver Miyem pays her as a chance at freedom—even if it comes from the purse of a Jew. In the city, Irina, a young noblewoman, spends her days neglected by her father and stepmother. Possessing neither excessive beauty nor impressive wealth, her only hope of escape is a loveless marriage to a minor noble—unless, by miracle or magic, she can attract the attention of a handsome, cruel young tsar.

Novik interweaves these three women’s stories with astonishing ease, switching first-person narration freely—often mid-chapter. This kind of POV-swapping could easily get confusing in less skillfull hands, but Novik deploys it to fantastic effect, creating a web of complex relationships and stories connected by bargains and debts—of money, favors, questions, magic, and promises; of what is owed between fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, a ruler and his people. Gorgeous prose draws readers into a world both familiar and wondrous, full of homely details grounded in the minutiae of domestic concerns, even as the fates of entire peoples hang in the balance.

Expanded from a short story included in the subversive fairy tale anthology The Starlit Wood, Spinning Silver is billed as a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, and you can see the bones of that story poking through—the transformation of raw material into gold, successive tasks of increasing difficulty, a secret name—there are also shades of Cinderella and The Robber Bridegroom. The novel as a whole is steeped in the logic of folklore: events come in threes, prophecies are fulfilled, and bargains are ironclad.

What is truly marvelous thing is that, rather than writing against these narrative expectations, Novik embraces and complicates them, leaving the well-worn framework glittering with new meaning and unexpected implications. Her characters do not easily surrender to the fate their tales hand them; decisions are messy, morality is relative, people are more than they seem, and empathy is found in unexpected places. The result is a story that feels totally fresh and yet utterly timeless, as comforting as a favorite sweater, but never without a card or two hidden up a sleeve.

This is an affirming, uplifting, multilayered, and wholly original novel, filled with indomitable women who doubt themselves and stumble and get up more determined than ever; slippery villains who flash with unexpected depths just as you avert your gaze; and breathtaking, world-shattering magic. It is a story about transformation, family, debts, and love that interrogates human weakness and finds us stronger than we knew. It is as lovely a piece of fantasy fiction as I have read in years, a story I will hold closely in my heart for a long time.

Spinning Silver is available now.

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