Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders… but her father isn’t a very good one. Free to lend and reluctant to collect, he has loaned out most of his wife’s dowry and left the family on the edge of poverty–until Miryem steps in. Hardening her heart against her fellow villagers’ pleas, she sets out to collect what is owed–and finds herself more than up to the task. When her grandfather loans her a pouch of silver pennies, she brings it back full of gold.
But having the reputation of being able to change silver to gold can be more trouble than it’s worth–especially when her fate becomes tangled with the cold creatures that haunt the wood, and whose king has learned of her reputation and wants to exploit it for reasons Miryem cannot understand.
If you’ve read any of my reviews, you may have noticed that I have a great love for fantasy stories that feel like fairytales. Of course, if you’re talking about that genre, you can’t fail to mention Naomi Novik, she of Uprooted fame. Despite the similar covers, Uprooted and Spinning Silver feel like quite different novels, but that’s far from a bad thing.
If Uprooted was a reimagining of fairytales, Spinning Silver is more of a deconstruction. Spinning Silver (I’m sorry, but the autocapitalization of the letting I has made me decide that italics aren’t worth it) is a story about fairytales with its feet firmly planted in the real world, and the story is stronger for it. Each character has layers upon layers to them, constantly contradicting what is expected of them. Marriage is at the centre of this story, but these marriages are not ways to get the main characters to slowly learns that broody hot guys have secret sensitive sides. They’re entered into for political reasons, or for practical reasons, or simply because someone has no choice. This is the side of the fairytale world you don’t see, with moneylenders and clever but plain queens and antisemitism and people who never do exactly what you expect of them.
The characters are great. The three main characters, Miryem, Irina, and Wanda, are all vividly drawn. Miryem is a moneylender, cold and pragmatic because she has to be, Irina is the unlovely lord’s daughter with a keen mind for politics, and Wanda is a peasant girl slowly learning her own worth. They’re all distinctive and they’re all memorable.
Irina was one of my favourites. There’s a little Scheherazade to her, having to use her wits to delay her death every night and I loved the subtle power plays she made to stay ahead of her husband. She’s kind and shrewd, a combination I wish I saw more often in fiction, someone who has sympathy for squirrels and can also outthink most of the political players in the room. I did wish I got a little more resolution for her story, but it’s a little quibble. I’ll take all the Irina I can get.
Wanda’s story was really about finding her place, albeit on a much smaller scale than one would usually expect. Having grown up with an abusive father has made her wary of the world, but seeing her slowly become a part of Miryem’s family and realize that sometimes people are kind just to be kind was the kind of quiet, heartwarming story I would not expect from a book like this.
Miryem is obviously the most-main character of the story. Pragmatic, intelligent, and proud, practical but still kind, Miryem is more than up to moneylending, navigating a strange magical ice world, and saving everyone. I loved how stubborn and determined she was. Her strength comes from her intellect, and she’s easily able to think on her feet, which is especially useful when a weird ice goblin guy decides he wants to kidnap her, marry her, and use her to turn all his silver into gold. Miryem is also Jewish, which is something I’ve never seen in fantasy. (Or really in a lot of stories.) Obviously, as a not Jewish person, I can’t speak to how accurate it was, but I thought Novik did a really good job of showing the reality of living as a Jewish person in an openly antisemitic society. Miryem’s neighbours almost always treat her with suspicion or hostility and the people around her family frequently felt like a real threat to their safety.
One thing to note: this story is told in first person from multiple different points of view. While Novik does a good job of differentiating characters’ voices (the tsar was, surprisingly, one of my favourites), it still would take me a good paragraph or two (or three) to figure out which perspective I was reading from, which could be a bit of a pain. There were also no markers (that I noticed) indicating the different POVs, which was frustrating, and there were a couple of points of views that felt unnecessary to me. (I still don’t get why Irina’s nurse got her own POV.)
But, despite the many POVs and characters and their various subplots, this book felt just the right length. I tend to be a little wary of fantasy standalones because, in my experience, there’s usually just too much stuff crammed in there and it makes it hard to form attachments to characters and the action feels rushed. This is absolutely not the case here. There was enough time spent with all the characters to get to know them and care about them (except Irina’s nurse, sorry not sorry), and the ending didn’t feel abrupt or rushed.
This is a book that’s not quite like anything I’ve read. From the complex, layered characters, to the examination of fairytale tropes, to the addressing of antisemitism in a historical/fantastical context, there’s plenty of stuff here that feels fresh and wholly original. Yes, the POVs can be a little confusing at times, but the strong voices and intriguing characters more than make it worth the while.