The real story isn't half as pretty as the one you've heard.
–Naomi Novik - Spinning Silver - c.2018
It has been years since I’ve read a book by Novik. I read her Temeraire way back in 2006, and was a big fan until I sort of drifted out around book 5. I think that the original idea was great, but I’m not sure all the worldbuilding worked once she expanded out into the wider world. Although I would like to get back in to the story again at some stage, I think she’s finished the series so I would like to see how she winds it all up.
This is a very different book to any of the Temeraire series, and I didn’t read her previous standalone, so I can’t compare to that. But if it is anything like this one then I will have to pick it up because I really loved this one.
Spinning Silver is a kind of fairy tale adaptation but also very much its own thing. I’ve seen the mentions of Rumpelstiltskin and I can see the echoes in it, but there are a whole lot more there to. I guess it is more an expanded fairy tale, or an expanded amalgam of many fairy tales, with a focus on characters.
There are multiple first person narrators, with Miryem being1 the main protagonist. I really loved her character throughout the book. She has always been an outsider in her village, her whole family are outsiders as they are Jewish and so looked upon with fear and prejudice. And her father is the moneylender, which adds another level of unhappiness, even though he is too soft to ever force the issue and ask for the money back when people protest that they don’t have it.
But the winters are getting harder and when Miryem’s mother gets sick Miryem decides that she needs to call in the debts so they can afford food and warmth, as well as a doctor. She is much better at getting the money back, and develops into a shrewd business woman. So much so that she tells her parents that she can spin silver into gold, and that is the line that brings her to the notice of the Staryk, the fairy-like creatures that inspire terror in all mortals.
I really loved Miryem, her ruthlessness can be a little harsh, and you can understand why her father didn’t enjoy the collection part of the job, but she is only reacting to the people around her. She is so very much aware that as a Jew she could be turned into a scapegoat if things get bad in the village. Even if they don’t, the prejudice and anti-semitism of those all around mean that she can never relax or feel safe and secure.
The second narrator, Wanda, is a much different character. She comes from a dirt poor family, her mother is now dead and she worries that her father will sell her in marriage and that her life will be nothing but birthing babies until she too ends up in the grave. But her father is in debt to Miryem’s father, and when Miryem comes collecting Wanda is used to pay the debt, she will work for Miryem’s family for four years, until the debt is paid. Miryem doesn’t know it but Wanda is delighted with this change, and getting at least one proper meal in the day is an added bonus.
The third main narrator is Irina, the daughter of a duke who has never been thought of as much of a prospect until magical silver jewellery makes her desirable and she marries the tsar. Which she never wanted, especially when she discovers where his cruelty and power come from.
There are a few other narrators scattered throughout the story, but those are the main three, and all are fantastically well written and believable. The only issue I had is that sometimes the point of view would switch and it’d take me a while to realise who was narrating. But that is a minor quibble, and it could be down to the fact that I was enjoying the book so much I flew through it in almost one sitting.