Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik. ★★★1/2
TW: forced marriage, threat of sexual violence, parental abuse
I know everyone loves this novel, just like everyone loves Uprooted. Meanwhile, I had a very conflicted relationship with Uprooted. While I liked most things about it, I cannot emphasize enough how much I abhorred the borderline-abusive romance subplot. And when others told me that the romance subplot in Spinning Silver was similar to in Uprooted… well, you can understand why I hesitated to pick up Spinning Silver.
As it turns out, the romance in Spinning Silver sure isn’t healthy, but at least it doesn’t get as much focus as in Uprooted. So overall, I think I may like Spinning Silver better, even if the structure is a little wonky and it uses too many POVs.
When Miryem’s mother falls sick and her family is struggling to put food on the table, Miryem takes her father’s job of a moneylender upon herself, determined to collect what is owed. Miryem’s father may not be a good moneylender, but Miryem turns out to be excellent, hardening herself to the pleas of the villagers and finding success through her ruthlessness. With her success comes arrogance, as Miryem brags that she can turn silver into gold. Only, she says this on the winter road, in the woods belonging to the Staryk, otherworldly creatures of ice and cold who love nothing more than gold. The Staryk king then issues Miryem a challenge: change his silver to gold. If she fails, she will die. If she succeeds, he will make her his queen.
Spinning Silver originated in a short story of the same name, included in The Starlit Wood anthology, which consisted of fairy tale retellings. If you haven’t guessed already, Spinning Silver is a retelling of ““Rumpelstiltskin.” In her afterword to the short story, Novik discussed her problems with the original story, to the heroine marrying a man who threatened to kill her to Rumpelstiltskin himself having more than a hint of anti-Semitic caricature about him. In her retelling, Novik thus draws upon her heritage to craft Miryam, a courageous and intelligent Jewish heroine.
While I largely enjoy Novik’s approach to “Rumpelstiltskin,” I was still not a fan of the romance subplots. To be fair, romance was not a major thread in Spinning Silver. It’s lightly present in Miryem’s storyline and to an extent in Irina’s. Irina is a noblewoman whose father decides to use jewelry made from Staryk gold to make his daughter desirable to the unmarried czar. Only, the czar is a cruel man who Irina is afraid to marry.
Miryem and Irina’s lives parallel in some ways, as both are girls facing an unwilling marriage to powerful men. Similarly, the threat of sexual violence hangs over both relationships. This is why I’m not a fan of forced marriage plotlines. Although they almost always result in love and happiness for the protagonists forced into them, they still rely on a prevalent threat of rape and the lack of consent to create their tension. It’s just not something I’m comfortable with, especially as the start to a romantic relationship. And two in one book was a little much, although I think the Staryk king was worse than the czar for spoilerly reasons. Sure he’s some sort of magical, fae-like creature but that doesn’t excuse his actions! All that said, I didn’t hate either relationship as much as the one in Uprooted. At least we didn’t get a sex scene with one of the abusive guys,.
While I’ve already discussed two of the central POV characters, there’s another that warrants discussion: Wanda, who is working for Miryem’s family to pay off her father’s debt. Wanda’s father is an abusive alcoholic who was contemplating selling Wanda into marriage, which she desperately wants to avoid. So Miryem’s demand that Wanda work off her father’s debt is a blessing, and Wanda is able to lie to her father about the terms of the work and start saving money that she can use to escape. All together, Wanda, Miryem, and Irina made up a strong trio of heroines and carried the book.
However, as the story went on, Novik kept adding the perspectives of other characters in ways that felt unnecessary and detracted from the story. Do we really need the perspective of Wanda’s little brother or Irina’s nurse? In my opinion, all POV sections beyond that of Miryem, Wanda, and Irina could have been cut, and the story would have been stronger for it. As is, I felt like I was getting bogged down by so many shifts in perspectives, and I questioned the rationale.
What I enjoyed most about Spinning Silver was the courage and skills of its heroines, the reworking of the “Rumpelstiltskin” fairy tale, and the atmospheric and evocative writing. Novik completely succeeds in making you feel the biting chill of the dark winter woods and the magic of the Staryk. So while I do have problems with the story, I don’t regret reading it.