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Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik (Review)

The real story isn’t half as pretty as the one you’ve heard.
So begins Spinning Silver. I had heard many good things about Naomi Novik’s Uprooted for me to put it on my to-read list for this year. But as these things go, I came across this more recent release of hers on the Boston Public Library’s Lucky Day shelves and couldn’t resist picking it up. Strong leading ladies, magic, fairy-tale retellings–what more does one want.
The start was slow, but I enjoyed the gradual unfolding and introduction to the character of Miryem, supposedly the main protagonist, as she and her parents struggle by in a small village in what you assume is somewhere in Eastern Europe (later finding out that it is a version of Lithuania). Miryem’s father is too soft-hearted to be a good moneylender and she has to make some tough choices for the survival of her family, not least of it is hardening her heart and taking over the moneylending duties herself (which she turns out to be very good at).
Then there is Wanda, a motherless local peasant girl whose father (a drunken, angry man) is in debt to Miryem’s family. As a way to pay it off, Wanda works at Miryem’s during the day. But soon, through circumstances and a closer understanding of each other’s situations, Wanda becomes Miryem’s assistant, with the latter secretly paying her. Wanda has two brothers–Sergey is older and Stepon is younger–and it is lovely to watch how their relationship changes and grows when initially all Wanda wants to do is get away from them all.
Miryem’s boast of being able to turn the silver coins into gold ones catches the attention of the Staryk king (fae ice creatures that live deep in the woods and lust for gold). He sets her three seemingly impossible tasks, but when she is successful in all of them, he carries her off to his kingdom to be his wife.
So far, very engrossing. There are two (first-person) points of view–Miryem and Wanda–and the story, though slow to start, was quickly building up to something interesting. Then, midway through the story, we are introduced to a new narrator. Irina is the daughter of a duke whose father is making plans for her to marry the tsar; luring him in with jewelry made from Miryem’s Staryk silver, which has magical properties. Neither of them is aware that Irina has Staryk blood from an ancestor, or that the tsar is in cahoots with a fire-demon who takes over his body and senses every day after dark. Though I was surprised to have a seemingly main player introduced so late in the story, I was willing to give it a chance because this is when the larger plot starts to fall into place (or at least I thought it did).
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Let’s talk about what I loved in this book:
– The narrative, for the most part, is very atmospheric, and the world of the narrative very rich in detail.
– Naomi Novik has succeeded in the most unique interpretation of the Rumpelstiltskin fairytale that I have read, more so because no one character is him; all three women at the heart of this story show shades of him in very different ways. I also enjoyed the elements of other myths present here, especially Hades and Persephone.
– This is the first fantasy novel I have read that features a Jewish protagonist. The religious and cultural aspects of this choice felt very real and organically rooted in the story, and I appreciated this glimpse into something we don’t often get to know more about. There was a good balance between these social elements and the magical fantasy ones.
– The way in which the themes of the narrative are woven into the story. This is a story about faith, loyalty, agency, responsibility, friendship, family, the status of the outsider, the nature of money, and owing thanks or debt. But at no time did it feel like it was ticking off boxes. Instead, the discussions about these issues were shown through the decisions and choices of the characters, the situations they find themselves in.
– It’s not often that so many characters face such complex choices with no easy answers, and not often that secondary characters are this layered.
– There was an attempt to humanise most characters, even the villains, and in some instances it worked really well.
Now for some things I did not love:
– Despite the details and rich descriptions of the surroundings, there was a serious lack of world building, and hence a serious lack of the stakes present beyond the immediate which makes the impact of the finale, the big battle for Lithvas, negligible. Because we are immediately immersed in the lives of these characters, and because the narrative kept hinting at reveals down the line, I assumed that we would receive answers which unfortunately never came. There was nothing about the magic system, nothing about the Staryks and why they exist; the history between the fire demon and the Staryks was revealed much too late. There wasn’t any basis to why the Staryk act the way they do, or how their world functions. There were some beautiful descriptions of their city under the ice mountain, but not enough time was spent on anything apart from the visuals. Also, what about Wanda’s dead mother’s magical intervention? How does Miryem possess magic in the Staryk kingdom? What about the abandoned cottage between the two worlds that was such a convenient plot point? Because of this minimum world building, it was harder to keep up with the shifting of the stakes in the final third of the book, and harder still to feel their urgency. The lack of relevant groundwork also made character motivations shallow or absent. At times, it really felt like the author was making it up as the story moved along.
– Too many narrators. In the end, we have six (did I count correctly?) narrations all in first person, all abruptly switching within the same chapter (routinely more than once), all without any indication of who is speaking (though, Novik was good about giving a hint in that first paragraph so it was more of a minor annoyance), some repeating scenes from different points of view. Apart from Stepon (a child’s POV which started off cute but quickly got annoying), they all sounded the same. It was immediately apparent that Stepon’s POV was a necessary technical choice than an organic narrative one, so that some narrator remained with Miryem’s parents. But I didn’t see why it was necessary to include Irina’s old maid or the tsar. What this did is take away from the potential development of the three main characters and their story arcs, which seemed to be the most interesting part of this book.
– Which brings me to the pacing, which is very inconsistent.
– All three of the women in this book are both heroes and monsters, wrapped in coldness in different ways. I respected them and the control they took of their destinies. I also understood and appreciated why they had to be cold-hearted at times and distanced, but I would have liked to feel an emotional connection to them which was mostly missing. I was interested in their stories and what would come next, intellectually, but apart from flashes here and there, I felt an emotional disconnect. Miryem grew on me the most, even though I felt that the attempt to make her a “cold” and “hard” character made her a bit too distant and flat to relate to. I did also appreciate the character developments of Wanda and Irina, but wish Wanda had more of an important role to play.
Was I maybe hoping for the camaraderie present between Felicity, Sim, and Johanna in The Lady’s Guide? Maybe I also wanted more of a tangible connection between their independent stories.
– I didn’t always like the writing style, especially when it was unnecessarily repetitive, or when the balance between dialogue and description skewed in the favour of the latter and slowed down the pace.
– I saved this for the last, but I really did not appreciate how the two main relationships/marriages were treated. Both were supposed to taken as “slow burn” pairings that would be ultimately redeemed. Maybe it is just me, but the transitions were too abrupt and hence not believable; not to mention that I’m not a fan of relationships that begin on the basis of any kind of abuse which should just be forgiven and forgotten because oh they have “changed”. Which makes me worried about Uprooted, because readers have said similar things about the romantic pairing in that one.
I seem to be in a vicious cycle of reading books where I love some parts, but they aren’t enough to make up for the things I don’t like, and then I don’t know how to feel about the book as a whole. Does this ever happen to you?
What did you think of this one?
Check out @booksinboston for more reviews and book talk, thanks for stopping by! Let me know your thoughts in the comments 🙂

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