Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Reviewed by David Harris

This was the first time I’d read a book by Novik. Her Temeraire series and Uprooted (reviewed for Shiny by Sakura here) have received lots of praise so I was pleased to have an opportunity to review this new standalone story.

Set in the snowy Eastern European forests long ago, Spinning Silver is the story of three young women. Miryem is the daughter of the village moneylender – who, sadly, lacks the instinct for his occupation. Wanda has no mother, and a father who mistreats her and her young brothers. Irina, whose mother has also died, is a member of the nobility, but just as much under her father’s control as Irina: he plots to marry her off for political advantage.

Faced with starvation, Miryem takes a hand in her father’s business. If he doesn’t have the steel, the coldness, for the work, she does. But that coldness attracts attention, and when the King of Winter, the Staryk, demands a favour of Miryem, he sets in motion a chain of events that changes the lives of all three. Their stories then cross and interweave, each affecting the other in what are at the start, three parallel tales. I might almost say three parallel fairy tales, there are so many traditional elements here; of course the idea of spinning silver into gold, but also the witch’s house in the woods, the castle of ice, the motherless child, and so on.

Yet for all the magical atmosphere, Novik keeps things firmly anchored in practicality. Things like food, money, warmth, matter here – as does the catastrophe that can befall a young woman when men man scheme to use her.

Politics and position at Court also matter – the need to anchor a fractious kingdom, provide an heir and keep the nobles in their place. And to raise taxes at a time when winter is growing in power and destroying the crops the people depend on…

Novik fills the book with well observed descriptions of things that are often left out in fantasy – profit and loss, trade and goods, as Miryem attempts to rescue the family business. The difference a little extra food of fuel can make, as Wanda shivers with her brothers in their cottage. The need to rebuild a city wall breached in battle and the money that makes that happen, how the job is financed and who the loan came from. Novik takes her time to show the amount of effort involved in making a dress, a mattress cover, a silver ring. The work must always come first.

And when the time comes that the protagonists – not just Miryem, but her parents, not just Wanda, but her brothers – are in danger, it’s almost always these little, practical things that save them. In one place Novik takes nearly a page describing a piece of knitting, as part of showing how little positive acts fortify a house against the cold, the unnatural winter that’s spreading through the land. Food is prepared and put on the table, logs found for warmth, and people survive. The wolf is kept away for another day, and sometimes that’s enough.

Which isn’t to say that larger things aren’t afoot. There are true monsters here, and they have to be fought, but Novik blurs the lines so that it often seems to be a matter of setting the lesser evil against the greater, rather than of pure good. And even as the fight becomes fiercer, there are side agendas – such as Irina’s father seeking to marry her off to the Tsar, and her own response. The struggle for survival and the politics of a small and unstable kingdom are never far apart. This is a complicated book, where good intentions aren’t enough and can lead to real harm.

There are some particularly poignant themes here. There is the prejudice shown against Miryem and her family in their village for being Jewish, also embodied in the separate “quarter” – complete with guards at the gates – for the Jews in town: in both cases there is the ever present threat of violence, the of needing to escape, in the background even of prosperous and successful lives (let alone Miryem’s scatty and impoverished parents). There is the position of an older unmarried woman, having to make a place for herself in a noble house because it’s that or starve. There is the plight of the peasants, one bowl of soup or handful of logs away from death (and subject to Draconian punishment for taking an animal or a fallen tree from the forest).

It’s am immersive and enchanting book – and that’s even before adding in the mysterious, mercurial Staryk King, a proud and aloof character with a convoluted and difficult sense of honour that only very slowly unwinds so that we can understand what he’s really doing. Think of a Mr Darcy, perhaps, – but with the power to bring winter in the height of summer.

Novik is good at worldbuilding and gives a real sense that this story is just part of a wider landscape – for example that witch’s house has an awful lot going on that is never really explored (even while she makes clear that she’s inverting the trope of the wicked house in the woods: this house is a welcoming place). There are, we sense, other stories here which could be told.

My only criticism would be a slight lack of distinction I felt, especially at the start, between Miryem, Irina and Wanda: while their circumstances are very different they do come across as very similar to in voice, something underlined by having each narrate sections of the book as “I” – there are also sections narrated by other characters, but fewer of them. (You may, though, think this actually emphasises how – for all the differences in status between the three – the fact that they are women in a patriarchal society puts them all very much in the same boat and demands that they each act with every last ounce of resource, ingenuity and courage.)

But that’s a minor quibble, overall I enjoyed Spinning Silver a great deal. It’s one to savour, with so much detail, so much suggested, that it begs to be read slowly and carefully. Novik dismantles the traditional fairy story, twists the parts round ninety degrees, and puts it back together again, adding a deep historical resonance and a telling mesh of race, gender and class issues and creating a study of power and marginalisation that is still truly and magically a fairy story.

Strongly recommended.

David blogs at Blue Book Balloon. A former physicist, he is married to a vicar and lives by a village green sometimes used to film Midsomer Murders, but has, against the odds, survived so far. David works in tax but promises he isn’t going to bring that up here.

Naomi Novik, Spinning Silver (MacMillan, 2018). 978-1509899012, 480pp., hardback.

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