BOOK REVIEW: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver is a young adult fantasy with all the silvery enchantment of a Lithuanian fairy tale spun in to a fiction fit for our times.

This is a novel bluish with snow and rime where a brittle chill rips through a fey King’s ice kingdom, and winter governs. Peasants starve out in the barren fields. Young girls have to labour for their lives. Primarily a tale about female power and survival in a society of capitalism, this novel’s narrative twist on the archaic tale of Rapunzel extends the symbolism of turning straw in to gold in to the die-hard business of money-lending.

A trio of unconventional female characters split the narrative voices between them. There is Miryem, a Jewish moneylender’s daughter, who takes on her father’s job for herself when he doesn’t manage the fundamental basics: ‘you have to be cruel to be a moneylender.’

With her family starving, Miryem takes the reins and her no-nonsense entrepreneurial skills quickly earn her a reputation as the girl who can turn silver to gold. Later, she takes on Wanda as an apprentice who is a survivor of paternal physical abuse and finally they meet Irina, daughter of a duke who has written her off because of her plain looks and poor marriage prospects. When King Staryk, the Lithuanian personification of winter, takes Miryem’s ability to spin silver literally, the fantastical comes in to play and he kidnaps her to his stalagmite-tipped kingdom to make best use of her.

Whilst the typical binary conventions of fairy tale are all correct and present in this novel, there is a noticeable departure from the basic power struggles of old that emerge time and again: rich vs poor, peasant vs royal, man vs woman, good vs evil. There’s something much more concrete here; social complexities are at play from the onset and the hardship of village life is made even more hostile when Miryem and her family routinely encounter anti-Semitism. In an interview with Paste (July, 2018) Novik described the novel as her father’s family’s story of being under siege and she firmly locates society’s scapegoating:

‘I think that a lot of anti-Semitism is historically a deflection of resentment of capital. It’s a deflection of that by the elite onto Jews, who are a convenient population to target.’

What really catches the light is Novak’s emphasis on a woman’s worth in relation to the cost of living. Commodity culture is held up for scrutiny in a mythical society which bears all the systems of modern worlds – a construct not too unlike our own – where money and transaction value is deemed more essential than human kindness and religion.

Fiction either parallels or subverts social realities and so it is both reassuring and heartening that this novel does away with some of the most antiquated of fairy tale tropes. There are plain-faced girls a plenty and beautiful aesthetics don’t win over lustful men in high places. In truth, slippery tricks and talent wins out. There is a distinctly negative representation of men throughout and although some characters do show a gradual softening, in the main we find neglectful fathers and physically abusive ones, guys without morals, and a king who misuses every system he can access. It feels crucial then that the female characters are girls who get angry. These are girls who do corrupt things on their own terms to get ahead in life. These are three-dimensional characters and there isn’t a hint of a paper doll forced in to a sparkly tabbed dress in sight. As a reader this tastes liberating because fairy tales can be a self-limiting genre by default and for a young adult reader, I imagine this authenticity tastes distinctly like possibility.

Whilst the feminist can never be satisfied with fairy-tales because of the damning nature of the trope, reality proves that modern society is just as deeply rutted in muddy misogyny as ever. Novak does a sterling job of exposing not just historical but issues here and now, the blatant anti-woman behaviours and misuse of power both in the workplace and within intimate relationships. For example, there is one potent scene in which Miryem is forced in to a marriage ceremony with Staryk against her will:

‘We didn’t exchange any vows, and there was no feasting and certainly no congratulations.’

This marriage of convenience is such a disempowering scene that it made me want to look away. An older man, such a young girl. Against her will. The weight of its wrongness. Power dynamics here are aptly conveyed by Miryem’s uncharacteristic silence and it resonates all the other similar acts of silence recently broken by #metoo.

Even the strongest of females – females like Miryem – can be silenced when confronted with punitive structural hierarchies and powerful older men who have hold of the systemic reins. This is where I feel the novel transcends its fantasy genre by also performing as a mode of social crystallisation for its young readers. It exhibits with clarity some of the gender powers hardest to see in all their deep-frozen glory.

In terms of narrative perspective, the first person effectively establishes intimacy and authority in the three girl’s stories but it brings minor perplexities for the reader processing because each chapter switches between the narrative ‘I’ without named character titles. Arguably, the reader is able to determine which voice is talking when and Novak trusts entirely in their ability to do so but this is not without work. However seamless the writing there’s a momentary lag, an awkward pause which whipped me out of the story and sometimes I had to flip between pages. Small though it is – such disruption requires re-settling back in to the temporal space and interferes with flow. Of course, the same would occur in any perspective and whilst it’s a given dilemma with featuring several narrative voices, it’s jarring all the same.

The language is silver-tongued with an emphasis on the figurative. Novak has an ability to capture small moments hard to articulate with a delicate accuracy:

‘There was something odd in his face that didn’t stay the same whenever you looked at him twice, as if his edges were constantly melting and re-formed. He wasn’t beautiful, he was terrifying ; and then he was beautiful, and then he was both,’

Even though readers are in the realms of fantasy, Novak keeps one foot firmly in our territory and it is these human observations which stand out, tender, in the midwinter landscape.

Spinning Silver is a reimagined fairy-tale with fantasy at its forefront that also gives valuable consideration to feminism, sacrifice and the cost of living. It comes with a charm of its own.

Spinning Silver is published by Macmillan Books

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Naomi Novik

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Naomi Novik is the acclaimed author of the Temeraire series. She has been nominated for the Hugo Award and has won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, as well as the Locus Award for Best New Writer and the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel. She is also the author of the graphic novel Will Supervillains Be on the Final?

Fascinated with both history and legends, Novik is a first-generation American raised on Polish fairy tales and stories of Baba Yaga. Her own adventures include pillaging degrees in English literature and computer science from various ivory towers, designing computer games, and helping to build the Archive of Our Own for fanfiction and other fanworks. Novik is a co-founder of the Organization for Transformative Works.

She lives in New York City with husband and Hard Case Crime founder Charles Ardai and their daughter, Evidence, surrounded by an excessive number of purring computers.

Reviewed by Rachael Smart

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