Review: Spinning Silver

Like much of Naomi Novik’s work, Spinning Silver does some familiar things very well. It’s a sort of spiritual successor to Uprooted (which I loved, although others had some good points to make about the uncomfortable dynamics in its central romance), in that, like Uprooted, it expands fairy tale into something that’s much more emotionally and morally complex while leaving it recognisably, well, fairytale.

The fairy tale in question in Spinning Silver is “Rumpelstiltskin”. Novik begins her tale with Miryem, the daughter of a Jewish moneylender who’s kind to a fault. When she takes over the business, she becomes so successful that she boasts of being able to turn silver into gold. And she’s taken up on that boast by the king of the Staryk, a violent, ethereal race who live in a realm of eternal winter. She must change Staryk silver into gold three times in return for the king’s hand in marriage – and, it’s strongly implied, the safety of her family. The attention of the Staryk is a dangerous thing to have.

Meanwhile, we also have Irina, the daughter of a nobleman, who’s about to be married off to the demon-king Mirnatius to advance her father’s standing. With her life in imminent danger, she needs to learn politics really fast, as well as avoiding the murderous intentions of her demon lover every night.

And then we have Wanda, who works for Miryem’s family as a way of paying her abusive father’s debt off. Her efforts to escape him are aided by the voice of her dead mother, who communicates with her through a white tree behind her house.

As is maybe already obvious, Spinning Silver is a novel that carefully, deliberately avoids traditional fairy tale morality. These three women are not trapped by any curse or character defect; they’re trapped by toxic masculinity, by men who seek to control them for their own ends. Accordingly, their only hope of escape is not magic or purity of heart but agency.

This is where Novik’s typical attention to characterisation and the interplay of personal motives becomes important. Agency in Spinning Silver means not only acting for yourself, it also means becoming yourself; identifying your own priorities and values and red lines, as well as, crucially, who you want to align yourself with. Who your community is. It means not conforming to the story.

So Spinning Silver’s morality is not singular. Each of these women makes decisions where the “right” path is not obvious, or at least not obvious to us; they have their own priorities and values and red lines that inform everything they do. (In particular, I liked Novik’s handling of Miryem’s religion, with the proviso that I know very little about Judaism or Jewish culture: it informs her identity in a very fundamental way without limiting it.) They sometimes act in ways that we may disagree with, and their decisions and motives conflict with each other. That’s one of the things Spinning Silver does well: it frees up these women to be as complex and interesting as male characters are allowed to be. It gives them meaningful choices, and in doing so gives this old fairy tale real depth.

The second thing Spinning Silver does well is connected to how it preserves the particular magic of fairy tale, that specific narrative resonance that’s always so hard to put your finger on but that has something to do with threes and names and promises. The Staryk are, I’d say, the major fairytale presence in this novel (Mirnatius strikes me as a creature who comes more from high fantasy than fairy tale), and Novik puts work into making their culture genuinely different from the human one. Specifically, for the Staryk, lies are punishable by death, which has some interesting effects on how Miryem is treated by their king: the definition of “lies” includes “unfulfilled promises”, for instance. That makes the power of words very real – and fairy tales are all about the power of words, all those promises and vows and secret names. Miryem has to learn how to navigate this web of words, and fast, just as Irina has to learn to navigate court politics, and Wanda the treacherous waters of public opinion.

Spinning Silver, then, is a really lovely book, full of the resonance of fairy tale and myth without being choked by it. It’s not doing anything radical, perhaps. In fact, on a sentence level, reading it is much like reading The Lord of the Rings, only not sexist or racist or classist. And, for me, that’s enough.

The world I wanted wasn’t the world I lived in, and if I would do nothing until I could repair every terrible thing at once, I would do nothing forever.

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