Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik is a retelling of the Rumplestiltskin fairytale. It’s set in a magical Polish landscape and follows the fortunes of three women: Miryem, the daughter of a too-kind-hearted money-lender, who takes up her father’s job to such success it seems she can turn silver into gold; Wanda, a poor servant girl who goes to work for Miryem’s family to pay off her father’s debt; and Irina, the daughter of a lesser duke who unexpectedly attracts the attention of the tsar who holds a dark fiery secret inside himself.
I loved Uprooted, another Polish fairytale written by Novik, so I was very excited to read Spinning Silver. It has the same beautiful writing and rich world building as Uprooted, but Spinning Silver left me unsatisfied.
Unlike Uprooted, Spinning Silver follows many characters in first-person narration. The fact that each narrator was clearly distinguishable from just the writing—no chapter headings or titles—is very impressive, but when I read first-person I expect to be close in one character’s head for the duration of the whole novel, and I personally find it jarring to go from character to character so quickly.
The base of this book is the story of Rumplestiltskin, and the concept of changing things into gold through business acumen and trading is a smart one, but it also felt a little forced at times. Miryem’s boast that she can turn silver into gold reaches the ears of the Staryk, a magical race of people who live in a kingdom of eternal winter, and their king abducts Miryem to change silver into gold for him forever. That’s a clear enough link with Rumplestiltskin, but the reason given for why the Staryk need gold so much feels too flimsy and comes too late in the book for it to make good sense. Also, once inside the Staryk kingdom, Miryem discovers that she literally can turn silver into gold through magic, but there’s no reason given for this and Miryem herself isn’t at all surprised at her newfound talent.
The stories of Wanda and Irina are engaging enough. Wanda is particularly interesting as she grows away from being her father’s slave and starts to form her own personality. Wanda’s is also the only storyline (Spoiler alert!) that doesn’t end in romance—and the romance was another issue I had with this book. In Uprooted, the main character is taken away from her home to live with an irritable and angry man who constantly berates her and treats her badly, but (Spoiler alert!) she still falls in love with by the end, having realised that his behaviour isn’t personal and he has that same contempt for everyone because he’s been forced into circumstances he’s not happy with. I didn’t like that in Uprooted, but I enjoyed the rest of the book enough to roll with it. In Spinning Silver, the same dynamic plays out again, with (Spoiler alert!) Miryem falling in love with the Staryk king, and Irina falling in love with the tsar. Both women were taken against their will to live with these men, both women feared for their safety with these men, both women were won over by a moment of vulnerability when they realised the man’s terrible behaviour was only because of external circumstances. But I do not see what kind of circumstances would make you forget that you once thought this man was going to kill you or rape you, so I was extremely disappointed by this ‘happily ever after’ ending.
Novik’s world-building is lovely, and I really enjoyed the Polish setting and details of the Staryk culture. But, overall, Spinning Silver was a disappointment for me.
© 2020 Alice Olivia Scarlett
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Alice Olivia Scarlett is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Thanet with the seagulls and parakeets.