Review: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

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“Two tropes don’t always make a right.
Except when they do.”


Gosh, was I aching for a good fantasy novel after I finished writing my thesis. Finally, I was able and allowed to set aside the ‘heavy stuff’ for a while. I didn’t have to look for no motifs, no symbolism, no message and no codes… Of course, I still found loads of those everywhere. For once you’ve noticed that, if you squint your eyes, it can seem as though cars’ headlights are actually their eyes and the grill on the front then would be their mouth, it is impossible to go outside and ignore all the faces driving past. It’s the same with books (kinda): once you’ve seen it, you can’t ‘unsee’ it. And why would you want to?

Anyway, onwards to today’s blog. Naomi Novik is an American fantasy author with a Polish background, and is most renowned (so far) for her immense Temeraire series. Her more recent two novels, Uprooted and Spinning Silver are both standalone stories, and boy, has she shown that she doesn’t need a long range of books to tell a compelling tale. Today, I will be discussing the most recent one, Spinning Silver, her original retelling of the story of Rumplestiltskin and his ability to spin straw into gold.

               It really is something different. People say this often (way more than is generally called for) but I dare proclaim it here. The well known fairy-tale clearly functioned as inspiration, but Novik clearly went and wrote her own story. Various elements of the tale like the ‘smart’ girl biting off more than she could chew, the impossible tasks issued by a greedy king, turning stuff into gold, heavy consequences to rash decisions, and the magical quality of names are present in Spinning Silver. One has to squint, though, to recognize Rumpelstiltskin’s story (or the Miller’s daughter’s tale, I’m not sure how it is known in other countries. I guess we Dutchies sided with the imp) as one reads the book. There’s so much more story there; Novik as created an entire world around these motifs, adding to them and smoothly integrating them into the narrative.

Balancing that silver line

                Spinning Silver’s narrative is divided into three protagonists from different classes of society, who each show their own perspectives on money, magic, and life. They also heavily reflect on each other, which makes the experience of each of their characters so much more ‘real’. After all, someone’s thoughts and someone’s appearance can differ tremendously in both reality and in fiction. Since I don’t want to spoil everything, I won’t get too far into the plot, though I must say that it has some nice surprising hooks to throw. Quite some conventions and tropes are being transcended and taken into a new direction, without becoming too obnoxious about it. Yes, some might recognize some feminist notes in this book since it’s the women who generally solve the problems, and there’s this nice little scheme they brew up in which two of them decide to let their supernatural husbands just kill each other to get rid of them. But who can fault any book for such a notion, regardless of the underlying ideology?

The best bit about this book, however, is how well it fuses the magical with reality. The story’s style really takes after the folkloric tradition of discussing magic as something that lurks in the corner of one’s eye. The magical element is only slowly built up throughout the narrative, which makes it more engaging, since these girls all don’t have much magical affinity or understanding at first. We, readers, explore the world along with them, which makes these girls so damn likeable as a bonus (even if we might not agree with all of their life decisions). Another element which I loved is the important part language plays in the ‘magical system’ of this world. Language is characterized as a source of empowerment and control whenever our girls encounter magical entities. Along with that, in Wanda’s arc, even the ‘ordinary’ is turned into a magical phenomenon purely based on how it is experienced. She refers to the mathematics she learns from Miryem as magic, as it empowers her to leave her abusive father and take control over her own life.

Spinning Silver shows how language and magic are two sides of the same coin. This is shown most clearly by the deals she makes: outlining them in language translates them into reality. This also relates interestingly to Miryem’s Jewishness. This tied it all together for me in the end: the supernatural element, the historical paranoid attitude towards those who can ‘turn silver into gold’, the notion of ‘otherness’  which continuously seems to shift from ‘us non-jews versus those jews’ to ‘us humans versus those fiends and monsters’. It added some social reflection to the story in a way I didn’t expect. Along with that, it really grounds the magical system as the Staryk king describes it: it is almost an economy of magical energy, in which action is required to empower language. A very interesting notion I might reflect upon some more one day…

Mandatory Con (so you’ll believe the rest):

I’m not sure about Miryem’s revelation at the end of this novel. I loved the relationship between princess Irina and the Tsar, and the ending of their arc was really sweet. Especially since it was kept nice and short. Everyone knows how their story ends, so we don’t have to be there anymore. Miryem’s situation, however, was less clear for me. This is mainly because, while we see her mature and develop despite having to be queen in a strange land for a long time, we see no concrete emotional development toward the king. The formality of her stay there, and the emphasis on the relationships she developed with some of the other Staryk made the end a bit weird for me. While the narrative of this book has made me sympathize with him, nothing alludes to anything more from Miryem’s perspective. In addition to this, the convention-breaking streak of this book really had me expecting Miryem to remain a strong and independent woman, living happily with her family without getting married. While the respectful approach the king finally takes is charming, and the concept of crossing bridges of culture is a nice one to end this story on, it does simply feel a bit weird. Then again, we never get to know if she actually says ‘yes’ since the novel ends after the proposal, so that’s the ‘open ended so no-one will ever get any god-damn closure’-box ticked for you.

So yeah, those were some of my thoughts on Spinning Silver.

Think about it.

Read it!

Get back to me, tell me what you think.