Miryem is the daughter of a Jewish moneylender, viewed with suspicion by her tiny community because of her faith and her father’s profession, even though her father is so kind-hearted he rarely collects his debts. As her mother’s health worsens, Miryem takes matters into her own hands and starts running her father’s business. Her methods are so effective that she attracts the attention of the Staryk king, who rules the fairy kingdom of winter and is determined to take her as his wife because he believes she can turn silver into gold. At the same time, Irina, a duke’s daughter who has fairy heritage, is being forced into marriage to the tsar, who is possessed by a fire demon that draws him to the mysterious cold within her. Finally, our third female protagonist and narrator, Wanda, is relieved to be employed by Miryem’s family as a means of escaping her violent father, and hopes to store up enough money to flee with her two younger brothers – but what will happen to her when she too is drawn into the frozen Staryk kingdom?
Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik’s second stand-alone novel, has been billed as a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin that addresses the anti-semitic material in the original folktale, and while it certainly is that, it’s also so much more. I was hesitant, at first, to pick up this novel, despite its appealing blurb, because I had serious reservations about Novik’s first loose fairytale retelling, Uprooted, even though I hugely admired her ability to echo some of the finest modern rewriters of folktales (for me, Robin McKinley is the go-to example). Despite its feminist trappings, I felt that Uprooted ultimately fell into very old patterns in recounting the story of Agnieszka, who is taken from her village to serve a powerful wizard. Agnieszka has her own magic, but it is presented as ‘natural’ and intuitive as opposed to the intellectual, masculine magic of her captor; she’s supposed to be strongly linked to her closest female friend, Kasia, but the relationship never came alive for me; worst of all, she’s drawn into a misogynistic and problematic romantic entanglement. The blurb for Spinning Silver sounded like it might cover similar ground. However, this is actually a very different kind of novel, and all the better for it.
While Uprooted was narrated solely through the rather tiresome lens of Agnieszka, Novik deftly jumps between five voices in Spinning Silver; she does this so skilfully that there’s no need for names to mark the breaks between sections. By foregrounding three female characters, she avoids the feminine stereotypes that marred the previous novel, emphasising Miryem’s, Irina’s and Wanda’s different strengths, and it’s also refreshing to see Judaism handled so explicitly in a fantasy setting, moving away from the usual dominance of either Christianity or a kind of pseudo-paganism in these kinds of retellings. However, for me, the biggest strength of Spinning Silver is how Novik maintains the beautiful structure of folktales without compromising on the complexity of her plot. While Uprooted’s pace often felt relentless, as Novik tried to match the inevitable onward march of events in folk stories, Spinning Silver is simply gripping, as jumping from one storyline to the other gives the reader a bit of a break from the repeated sequences of three tasks and three days. This is such a clever and magical book, and I can’t wait for Novik’s next.