Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Cover of Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

My son recommended this book to me, and since I enjoyed the first in Naomi Novik’s sideways fairy tale retellings, I requested it from the library. Little did I know how well this novel fits into my long-term fascination with pre-Christian history in what is now Russia. The narrative tone, regardless of point of view (POV), reminded me of The Bear and the Nightingale, though this story has little in common with it beyond historical period and source material. It has more to do with the storytelling voice that builds the world as well as the character.

Like many older Russian novels, the cast is huge, with many gaining narrative control when appropriate, so I’ll introduce you to just a few for a taste.

Miryem, the moneylender’s daughter, suffers from how the villagers take advantage of her father’s kind nature. It’s from her we get the story’s title. She recounts the true meaning behind the fairy tale where the miller’s daughter, far from breaking class barriers to marry a prince, instead is left behind with a huge debt. She solves her problem by accusing the Jewish moneylender of devilry, and he’s chased out of town. Miryem’s father avoids this outcome by lending money to everyone, even when he has none for his own family, and never receiving payment.

When her mother’s life hangs in the balance, Miryem takes over her father’s business, hardening her heart against the villagers’ excuses. She claims the labor of a farmer’s daughter in repayment at one house, where there is nothing else. This choice brings Wanda and her two brothers into the story. Rather than suffering, Wanda is happy for an excuse to leave her home, even temporarily. She’s grateful for the chance to better the lives of her brothers as her drunk, abusive father would never do.

The third, but by no means last, POV is that of Irina, the neglected daughter of the local duke. He’d fallen in love with a woman of little standing, drawn by her Staryk (fey) blood. Then his daughter took after him with no beauty of her own, denying him the chance to make alliances through her hand. She’s learned to be clever and keep out of the way, but it’s not until Miryem makes a foolish boast in the Staryk woods that Irina’s nature comes to life and changes things forever.

Each narrator, whether a servant, a brother, or even the tsar, brings a new layer to an already complex story. The storytelling craft demonstrated in scenes beginning with tension that dissipate, or those that built tension with every moment, is impressive. Firmly grounded in Russian fairy tales, the story brings conflicting elements together with an unpredictable human element. The human characters choose answers that make sense, whether they’re right or wrong, and decisions built on those choices may not be as beneficial as expected.

The story’s depth is powerful. Story seeds planted take time to grow, and rarely in the way I first thought. We watch their world unfold through various perspectives, and the perspectives allow us to learn more than would be said aloud. This is true whether or not the narrator recognizes the significance of what they see. Assumptions made are often proved false, and it takes everyone working together to repair what has been broken.

This evocative story brings us into the heart of a world at crisis. From the humble start in a moneylender’s home to the tsar’s palace and beyond, the decisions of three young women, no matter how small, determine the fate of everyone they hold dear. They form bonds with those they could never have imagined they would meet, much less care about, introducing us to a complicated cast from all levels of society.

I enjoyed the first book in this series a lot, but Spinning Silver brings more than I imagined to such a familiar fairy tale. No one is exactly who they appear to be, whether a reluctant debt payment to the ice-cold king of the fey. I fell into this novel and didn’t want to climb back out, though the ending is more satisfying than I could have hoped for. The novel is well worth the time spent, and I look forward to what Naomi Novik tackles next.

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