"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." - From Goodreads
Naomi Novik’s books (if I remember correctly...and keep in mind I’m only basing this off of Uprooted which is one of my favourite books of all time) are what you’d call “slow burns.” Now, don’t get me wrong, there is action, there is magic (eventually), but not until after the world and the characters are built up. Not until you know where you are and who you’re with, and what is at stake.
In that sense, her two standalone novels (that I know of) aren’t for everyone. But for those of us who like to be drawn into stories, who like to wade into the ocean before the waves pull us under, they’re perfect.
The language and the writing are lush and beautiful. Novak manages to convey the voice and thoughts of different characters exceptionally well. You feel their hunger and their cold and their loneliness and frustration, each distinctly and individually, even while remaining in first person perspective.
The worlds she manages to spin out of known fairy tales turn into something all her own. She did it with Uprooted, and she’s done it again with Spinning Silver. This is not Rumpelstiltskin as you know it, far from it. There are items being turned into gold, bargains with strange creatures, hidden names that hold power, but these are merely the threads that are woven into a more intricate fairy tale in a Russian setting of fire and ice.
Part of the ingenuity of the retelling comes from the fact that multiple characters take on different characteristics of Rumpelstiltskin. He is not so much a magical imp with spinning powers, but an idea, a concept that is embodied by everyone from our fierce protagonist and (one) of our antagonists.
This is the story of three girls: a moneylender’s daughter, a duke’s daughter, and a daughter of an abusive drunk, and how they use their intuition, their individual strengths and intelligence, to escape the fates that seemed carved in stone and save themselves and those around them. From literal and figurative demons, from a permanent winter brought on by cold beings in a parallel world, from the physical and emotional cruelty of those around them.
Miryem, Irina, and Wanda’s paths are set into motion from the start, bound to intertwine simply because one girl, decides that she will not simply sit down and accept her family’s fate. Though Irina and Wanda are just as important, have voices just as strong and wounds that run just as deep, Miryem is the catalyst.
She is the daughter of a Jewish moneylender who is too kind to demand payment from those who have taken money from him in their small, basically nameless town, leaving him and his family to go cold and hungry, while their neighbors continue to live off of the borrowed coin and treat them with disdain (because antisemitism is a thing). Miryem, after her mother falls almost deathly ill, decides to take control of the situation and sheds any semblance of kindness to go and demand what is owed.
She is, everyone quickly finds out, unlike her father, an excellent moneylender.
Miryam finds clever ways to get back what her father had loaned, through coin or food or medicine or wool, or, in Wanda’s family’s case, labour in return for unpaid debts.
As her reputation grows, it reaches the ears of the Satryk, a race of humanoid creatures that live in a parallel land of snow and ice, only emerging in winter to seek out gold, which they covet above all else, wherever they can find it (usually leaving death and destruction in their wake) and bring it back to their kingdom.
Miryem has become so good, there are boasts she can spin silver into gold.
I think you can (kind of) guess what happens.
I can go on about how Wanda is drawn into Miryem’s life as a way to pay off the debt her father has drunk and gambled away. How Irina, a thorn in her duke fathers side due to her plainness and thus inability to marry off to someone rich and powerful, becomes all the more so in her own right, how she's linked to the other two girls when Miryem’s desperate attempt to fulfill impossible tasks set by the Staryk leads to ingenuity. How Miryem's faith plays a big role in who she is as a person and how she's treated, how she uses that to her advantage to become the reputable, though cold, businesswoman she needs to be to save her family.
How the side characters who occasionally get their own chapters, Stepon (Wanda’s little brother), Irina’s nursemaid, the Tsar himself, help flesh out an already rich story with history and perspectives that reconfigure viewpoints. But then I’d have a ten page review, and nobody has time for that.
The book wasn't perfect, and I'm pretty sure I enjoyed Uprooted more (I'd have to rereaad it to check). At times, these extra perspectives (remember, it' all still in first person) can get a little confusing (and sometimes feel a little unnecessary). There was a bit of repetition when it came to feeling and the internal expression of that (especially Miryem in regards to the Staryk). But overall, this is not a book to be missed.
Spinning Silver was a beautiful, captivating read that reels you in and makes you reconsider your notions of strength, of relationships and how they’re formed, of the different manifestations of cruelty that exist in the world, and the love that can surpass them.
(Some) Memorable Quotes:
““But I had not known I was strong enough to do any of those things until they were over and I had done them. I had to do the work first, not knowing.”
“...the blessing for fruit trees in bloom. I had always loved saying it: it meant hope, a deep breath of relief; it meant that winter was over and soon there would be fruit to eat and the world full of plenty.”
“You dare set yourself against me, to make a pretense of being my equal—““You did that, when you put a crown on my head!” I said. My hands wanted to shake, with triumph or anger or both at once.... “I am not your subject or your servant, and if you want a cowering mouse for a wife, to find someone else who can turn silver to gold for you.”
If anyone has read Spinning Silver, let us know what you think in the comments below! Comments also open to further book/movie/show recommendations, anything you’d like to see reviewed, or general feedback. We’d love to hear what you have to say!