Spinning Silverby Published 10 Jul 2018
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.
"Spinning Silver" Reviews
I'm officially giving up personhood to become the ghost of a tormented poet in love with melancholy who sits on patches of moss in the moors and recites 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 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 eat green tea ice cream with a tiny spoon. It was that iconic.
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 is the daughter of a Jewish moneylender and 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. This 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 who's 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 outwit every day just to live and 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 whose life is 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. These characters 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 prompted 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 "villains"—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. And 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 and most engrossing books I've read this year and one you definitely do not want to miss!
BLOG | TWITTER | INSTAGRAM | TUMBLR
Because that's what the story is really about: getting out of paying your debts.
There is just something about Novik's fairy tales. Something magical, atmospheric and utterly charming. I didn't like Spinning Silver quite as much as my beloved Uprooted - and I'll explain why a bit later - but it still kept me captivated from start to finish.
Spinning Silver is a loose retelling of Rumpelstiltskin. I say "loose" because you will recognise certain elements from the original - turning things into gold, the importance of names, etc. - but this is really a completely different story with different characters and many new plot lines. There's also not just one Rumpelstiltskin character, as several characters embody different aspects of the traditional imp.
I love that it's a very pastoral fairy tale with forests and country magic. The setting of the book gives it a lot of its atmosphere, and it works very well. There are parts that follow the characters through quiet daily farming activities, but there is magic and fear thrumming just under the surface.
Blue shadows stretched out over the snow, cast by a pale thin light shining somewhere behind me, and as my breath rose in quick clouds around my face, the snow crunched: some large creature, picking its way toward the sleigh.
Miryem is the daughter of the town's moneylender, but she takes over her father's job when he repeatedly fails to collect their debts. Turns out she has a talent for it and she soon finds herself turning more and more silver into gold. Unfortunately, this attracts the attention of one of the Staryk - fearsome creatures who desire gold above all else.
I found it really interesting that Novik explored the idea of a Jewish moneylender as Rumpelstiltskin. The traditional story is one where Rumpelstiltskin aids a woman in spinning straw into gold and she refuses to hold up her side of the bargain. Interestingly, it is Rumpelstiltskin who is viewed as the greedy villain. Antisemitic interpretations of the story shed a completely new light on it. Though it was unlikely the intention of the original, as the folktale predates any record of antisemitismm by about 2000 years and predates the idea of the Jewish moneylender by even more, many believe that more modern Rumpelstiltskins were deliberately made to represent Jews.
Novik, who is herself of Lithuanian-Jewish descent, uses this to challenge the Jewish moneylender stereotype and explore the antisemitism surrounding it. It's clever, and I loved it.
In some ways, it is a smarter book than Uprooted, and yet I didn't like it quite as much because parts of this were definitely convoluted. What I've explained above is just a tiny portion of the plot. There are other supporting subplots involving a noblewoman marrying a tsar possessed by a fire demon, and a poor farm girl and her brother running away from a crime. Then there's the whole tale of the ice king and answering three questions every night.
“Thrice, mortal maiden,” in a rhyme almost like a song, “Thrice you shall turn silver to gold for me, or be changed to ice yourself.”
I counted no less than six different perspectives - honestly, I may have missed someone - and you have to learn the symbol/image for each character, as that is the only way you'll know whose point-of-view the book has moved to.
Though I appreciate books with multiple layers and complex plots, I think shedding some parts of this would have only benefited it. Some chapters lean away from complex and interesting, and toward dense and confusing.
That being said, I still recommend it if you enjoyed Novik's Uprooted. It's a fascinating, exciting fairy tale with a whole lot of atmosphere and charm. And creepy secret worlds on the other side of mirrors(!). I hope Novik writes more of these books soon.
CW: Domestic abuse (physical; non-sexual); antisemitism.
Blog | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Youtube
ARC provided by Dey Rey in exchange for an honest review.
“Bring me the winter king, and I will make you a summer queen.”
Spinning Silver is one of the best books I’ve read all year. I loved this story with every fiber of my being. And Naomi Novik is a master at storytelling and interweaving stories together. You all know that this is a very loose reimaging of Rumpelstiltskin but I’d say it’s more of an empowering tale of three girls, all on three different paths, all promised to three different men, while all being looked over by three different mothers. Three is such a constant theme in this book, too, and it really helps reinforce that this story feels like a tangible piece of magic in your hands while reading. This book is nothing short of a masterpiece.
“The real story isn’t half as pretty as the one you’ve heard.”
The Three Girls:
➽ Wanda - a girl who has had to be strong, because it’s the only life she has ever known. Wanda has spent her short life taking care of her brothers and trying to please a father who is impossible to please. But that all changes once she is the only way to pay back his debts.
➽ Irinushka - a girl who has been born into royalty but has never known love from her blood family. Irina is still determined to save her people, by any means necessary.
➽ Miryem - a girl who will do whatever it takes to save her family. Miryem is strong, and relentless, and one of the very best characters I’ve ever read in my entire life. And she becomes one of the most feared moneylenders in her village, and she discovers that she awfully good at turning silver to gold. But she is not the only one that notices.
“That part of the old story turned out to be true: you have to be cruel to be a good moneylender. But I was ready to be as merciless.”
The Three Mothers:
➽ A Passed Away Mother who continues to look after her children.
➽ An Adoptive Mother who has unconditionally loved her child from the start.
➽ A Birth Mother who wants nothing more than her child safe and happy.
“A robber who steals a knife and cuts himself cannot cry out against the woman who kept it sharp.”
The Three Marriages:
➽ Filled with Hate because even in 2018 some men want to believe that they know what’s best for a woman, no matter the cost.
➽ Filled with Fire because some people are born into a world without a chance, regardless of money, power, and privilege.
➽ Filled with Cold because protecting the thing you love is sometimes something you’re willing to do anything for.
“...someone had climbed down and looked through our window: someone wearing strange boots with a long pointed toe.”
And these three girls, with their mothers, forced into their three marriages, all come together and create something so beautiful that I don’t even have words to express it. I will say that Miryem is for sure the main character. I will also say that we get to see a lot more points of view than these three girls and their betrothals. And the story is something that is so whimsical, so feminist, and nothing short of an honor to read.
Trigger and content warnings for hard scenes to read about loss of a parent, siblings, and death of children, for extreme parental physical abuse, brief mention of animal deaths, mention of past rape, sexual assault, alcoholism, torture, violence, murder, and use of the word Jew (not negatively, but it still didn’t feel good to read at times).
But one thing I did want to touch upon is how much Judaism plays such an integral role in this story. Miryem and her entire family are Jewish, and from the first to last page this plays a pivotal role in the story. I am not Jewish, but I still loved this inclusion so very much. Also, I’m adding “go to a Jewish wedding” onto my bucket list immediately. To my Jewish friends: please, invite me to your weddings.
Spinning Silver is such a love letter to found families everywhere, too. You guys know I love reading about found families, but all three girls in this book are the epitome of found families. Unconditional love is truly the strongest force in this universe, and not only does this book showcase that, it also celebrates that.
Overall, this just felt like a story that was single-handedly created for me. From the Staryks, to the Winter King, to the traveling between places, to the so very strong female cast, to the magic, to every single word on every single page. I swear, opening this book felt like magic and I never wanted to shut it. And I know I am being rather vague with my synopsis, but I truly believe that this book is probably best to go in not knowing much, and to just experience this otherworldly story firsthand. Without a doubt, this will make my “best of 2018” list and will forever have a place on my favorites of all-time shelf. Thank you so much, Naomi Novik, for a story I will cherish forever. And that last line will take my breath away every reread. Perfection.
“Because that’s what the story’s really about: getting out of paying your debts.”
Blog | Instagram | Twitter | Tumblr | Youtube | Twitch
The quotes above were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.
This novel is pure escapism; it is enchanting, mystical and, most importantly, it's a fantastic piece of writing. I loved it. Go read it!
I’m a critic but I found nothing to critique here. And for me that says a lot. I often find it hard just to sit back and enjoy a story without pulling it apart and dissecting all the elements of the book. It’s just want happens when you’re and English student. You consider the characters, the themes and everything the writing is trying to convey. With this, however, I was taken away by the majestic nature of the fairy-tale plot. It all just fitted together so perfectly and slid into an ending that left me feeling warm inside.
The novel is an amalgamation of fairy tales, all distinctively eastern European in feel, though they are fleshed out and twisted into something resembling a complex and compelling story that is not limited by the standard tropes fairy tales demand. This is not a novel about love; it is one about survival in a cut-throat world where the rich and powerful exploit the poor, weak and helpless. The peasants starve in the winter as their lands are raided by the mystical Staryk whilst their Tsar hordes the entire kingdom’s wealth and basks in his own splendour. He does little to help his own people.
As such, people have to learn to survive and defend themselves in an unjust world. There are no heroes, only people who are willing to be brave in the face of tyranny. And tyranny can come in many forms, and often those who are supposed to love and protect us become the worse of the lot. Daughters learn to overthrow their fathers and make their own paths in the world. Miryem learns to turn silver into gold by taking up her father’s money lending business, and eventually what appears to be a natural aptitude for business develops into a fully-fledged magical ability that captures the attention of an Ice King.
From here the plot only improves. There are a multitude of characters and point of views though they are all linked and brought together into such a powerful ending. As Miryem is taken back to the Staryk kingdom, the Tsar daemon of rage and fire seeks to melt the lands of always winter. Two conflicting powers come crashing together, as the veil is lifted revealing the truth of a character shrouded in misunderstanding and ice. Just because a people operate in a different way, it does not make them inherently evil.
Spinning Silver is so much better than Uprooted because it is consistent; it sticks with the same themes and develops them until the very end of the story rather than shifting into a radical new plot line half-way through the story. As such the magic begins on the very first page and stays until the very last- I highly recommend it!
Ok. This is a retelling of Rumplestiltskin...but not.
What I mean is, Novik really took the idea of spinning straw to gold and the importance of a name, and just made that shit her own new story.
So, in this fairytale Eastern Europeanish setting, there's this spunky little Jewish girl named Miryem that kicks ass and takes names. She ends up with not only all the normal problems an ambitious female minority would have, but also the extra (and quite HUGE) problem of doing impossible things to keep the assy king of the (scary as hell) winter fairies (called Staryk) that live in the woods from doing scary as hell stuff to her. <--kinda?
But Miryem is not one to be cowed by some bitchy fairy king.
Then you've got Irina. A dumpy duke's daughter whose father uses some shady means (and a pinch of Staryk silver) to get the (creepy as fuck) tsar to marry her. She soon finds out that her not so beloved has a teeny little secret that just might get her eaten alive by more than just his court of petty nobles. Apparently, making a deal with a demon can backfire on you. <--who knew?
But Irina is tougher than she looks.
And then there's Wanda. This poor kid is just trying to survive her abusive home life when she gets pulled into the story by Miryem. Who, by the way, is only using her to collect a debt from her father. <--in case you were under the impression that our girl was a sweetheart.
And maybe at first Wanda is just hanging on for dear life, but somewhere along the way she finds her voice.
And then there's the rest of this enormous cast of characters...
The POV changes in this thing are unreal. I lost track of how many voices there eventually were, to be honest. The pacing wasn't exactly breakneck, but in my opinion, the story was worth plodding through some of the more meandering parts. But if you're not a fan of books that you have to chew and chew and chew?
Well, you've been warned.
This was a thick-ass book and the length took me by surprise in the way that only an e-book can. You know what I mean? When you go in and grab a physical copy of something, and then your arm comes out of socket when you try to lift it up...you know what you're getting yourself into. But when you download a book? There's that moment when you realize that you've been reading for an hour and you're only 4% done with the thing. Always fun...
Normally, I'm not a fan of stuff that doesn't hop along at a good clip, but Novak just turns my crank when it comes to storytelling, so she can get away with these wonky-ass long stories.