The New Rumpelstiltskin: A Review of Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik

The fairy tale is one of those story types which never goes out of fashion, with authors always reinventing the tales for the newer generations.  In Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik takes on the classic tale of Rumpelstiltskin.  Everyone knows the name, if not the spelling or the story beats.  A father boasts about his daughter’s ability to spin straw into gold.  A local king who takes the daughter and tasks her with the impossible feat of transforming three storerooms into gold.  The imp who arrives with magical powers in exchange for gifts and favors.  In most versions, the imp forces the girl to promise her first-born child for the final task.  The girl, however, is clever, and arranges a new deal.  If she can guess his name in three days, he will relinquish all claim to her and her blood.  The girl, through stealth and wit, discovers his name, Rumpelstiltskin, and frees herself from his grasp.  While Rumpelstiltskin and straw never appear in Spinning Silver, the beats are familiar enough to echo the original tale.

In both Spinning Silver and her previous fairy tale inspired novel, Uprooted, Novik crafts a setting inspired by Russia, Poland, and Eastern Europe.  She borrows titles of nobility and honorifics from the languages spoken in that region and even manages to shape her fictional lands in its image.  It is worth noting that Novik herself is a second-generation American immigrant.  Her mother is an ethnic Pole, while her father is of Lithuanian Jewish descent.  I can only imagine what the childhood Novik household was like, what stories were told around the kitchen table.  Her heritage was already a clear influence on Uprooted but takes center stage in Spinning Silver.  Despite the fictionalized version of Russia, the main character of the novel, Miryem, is Jewish, and faces some of the same historical persecution Jews have faced in Eastern Europe.

The basic plot of Spinning Silver begins in not-so-similar fashion to the classic Rumpelstiltskin.  There is still a boast about turning something into gold, but it is not the father who claims this.  Miryem’s father is the moneylender for a small town, and not very good at being a moneylender.  The family is poor, her mother sickly.  In the larger city where her grandfather lives, Miryem sees what it is like to be a rich Jewish moneylender and resolves to bring her family up.  She takes over her father’s business and immediately shows her talents, performing a better job that he ever did.  This concerns her parents, who see the coldness in her.  During a confrontation with her mother, Miryem boasts about being able to spin silver into gold, and is overheard by the Staryk king, an Erlkonig like figure who brings winter and death in his wake.  The actual spinning of silver into gold is a refreshing twist and plays into the strengths Miryem already shows.  This all happens in the first quarter of the novel.  From there, the plot really takes off.

Naomi Novik is a fantastic writer.  That must be said before all else.  She weaves a tapestry of words and show readers exactly what is in her head.  Reading Spinning Silver is being able to see the snow and feel the biting cold.  Each location is a real place, and each character is tangible.  When the Staryk king threatens Miryem or mocks her, the reader feels it viscerally.  Later in the novel, a demon and opposite of the Staryk king is introduced, and his violence erupts from the pages.  However, the writing starts to lag during several chapters following side characters and reading through those sections only makes readers want to return to Miryem’s tale.  The dialogue can also be hit or miss.  For most of the novel, it is amazingly written.  However, in the later sections, during several large action scenes, it can feel archaic and too much like a fairy tale.

Aside from our heroine, Miryem, Spinning Silver follows several other POV characters.  Several are more minor characters with only a few chapters between them, but two could be considered of equal main character status as Miryem.  Wanda is the first other POV character introduced.  A farm girl with an abusive and poor father in the same village as Miryem, she is hired on as a servant to pay her father’s debts.  Quiet, strong, and deceptively intelligent, it initially appears her story will take precedence in the novel as Miryem becomes more and more arrogant.  However, Wanda’s story quickly falls to the wayside and never really flourishes in the way we expect.  After her, Irina is introduced.  The daughter of the local duke, she is quiet and cold and composed, a pawn in her father’s political games.  A chance encounter with Miryem drags her, unwillingly, into the story and forces her into power as a princess.  However, Irina’s character change is very sudden and not entirely believable.  Her plot is just as important as Miryem’s, but never manages to be quite as engaging.

Miryem is the true main character of the novel, despite the many other POV characters who appear.  We begin with her and we end with her.  Everything happens in this story because of her, with all other plot lines orbiting around her decisions.  Wanda and Irina both are introduced only because of Miryem’s actions, first with taking over his father’s business and then because of her deal with the Staryk king.  Miryem is also the only character who evolves in any meaningful way.  We watch arrogance and coldness overtake her, following by anger and wit, then compassion and regret of her actions.  Where Irina is a princess, Miryem is a Jew.  Where Wanda is static, Miryem is discovering what is important to her.  Novik can and does make the other characters engaging in their own ways, but every page spent away from Miryem just increases the desire to return to her story.

As much as I enjoyed Spinning Silver, the novel is not without its flaws.  Aside from Miryem taking absolute ownership of the story, the book can feel bloated at times.  Miryem, Irina, and Wanda are the three main characters, but others have their own POV chapters as well.  Irina’s maid, Wanda’s brothers, the tsar of the land; each have their own sections, all introduced very late in the story and none offering anything truly necessary.  At over four hundred-fifty pages, this is not a quick read.  Yet, the story is still amazing.  The land of the Staryk which Novik has imagined is fascinating, and Miryem is one of the most interesting characters to ever grace a fairy tale.  There is a reason fairy tales have never died, and we can only hope that Naomi Novik continues to bring them into her imagination.

Spinning Silver can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 13 days

Next on the List: The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin

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