I could not have started the year off with a more pleasant surprise. I read another of Novik’s high fantasy novels, Uprooted, in 2016 and…I was not a fan. While I didn’t loathe it with every fiber of my being like Petrik did, it took me a couple of months to trudge through 435 pages. That’s not my general reading experience. There were a lot of things I really didn’t like about that book and, because of that dislike, I was skittish about picking up Spinning Silver . But, as I own both a physical and digital copy, I knew I was going to have to pick it up eventually. So when Petrik suggested we do a buddy-read as soon as the new year started, I jumped at it. He, Eon, TS, Haifa and myself all started it together, and the consensus has been overwhelmingly positive. Spinning Silver is a thoughtful, intricate, powerful novel that is one of the most atmospheric books I’ve ever read. I’m incredibly glad that we gave Novik another try.
The story follows three young women, Miryem, Wanda, and Irina, who are all incredibly compelling characters. Miryem is the daughter of a Jewish moneylender who is a doormat of a man, leading to his family slowly starving to death until Miryem steps into the role. Wanda is the oldest child of an abusive drunk who is in debt to Miryem’s father, and Wanda finds herself working off that debt in Miryem’s home. Irina is the daughter of a duke whose political machinations matter more than his daughter’s wellbeing, but Irina isn’t beautiful enough to be useful without the aid of outside forces. All three women are well fleshed out, and their motivations are believable. And they’re all incredibly smart or canny in their own ways. I loved that they thought their way through whatever situations they faced. They didn’t wait for someone to save them. They saved themselves. I loved that Miryem’s Jewish heritage. The little bits of her religious background and culture sprinkled into the novel added a depth to her character that drew me to her. And also seeing that culture through the eyes of Wanda, who isn’t Jewish, only served to further deepen that aspect of Miryam’s story. And then there’s Irina and her life as a royal, through whom we experienced the politics of the land. Between these three young women runs the gamut of political, religious, and socio-economical stratas, which provided a wonderfully broad look at the world of Lithvas that Novik created.
While our three main perspective characters were the driving force of the novel, there was a wonderful supporting cast. We have Miryem’s parents and grandfather, Wanda’s brothers, and Irina’s maid who all give us more insight into whichever of our main characters have their love. My favorite of these secondary characters was hands down Wanda’s youngest brother, Stepon. The ways in which he viewed the world made my heart ache. He’s another of those literary children who, if I could reach into the pages and pluck out, I would adopt in a heartbeat. It was impossible for me to choose a favorite between Miryem, Wanda, and Irina, but Stepon was an easy choice. Then there are the tsar of Lithvas and the Staryk king. Both ended up being far more multi-faceted by the end of the story than I would have expected when they were introduced. I won’t discuss them because I don’t want to spoil the plot in any way, but both were very interesting characters.
The setting of this book felt very Russian. Novik blended real-world settings with her own fantastical creation so beautifully. The firm foundation of what we know made the structure of the new and unknown feel infinitely more tangible. This combination made for an intensely atmospheric world. I could feel the bite of the cold in a way that few books have managed for me in the past. Lithvas indeed felt very Russian, but the realm of the Staryk was truly magical, and the dichotomy between the two kingdoms worked very well.
I wasn’t sure how all of the strands of the plot were going to come together. But Novik tied everything up so tidily that, in hindsight, I can’t believe I didn’t see the resolution coming. The story was intricate and layered but managed to deliver on the fairytale source material with a fairytale ending. But this ending was satisfying without seeming overly saccharine or illogical, as sometimes happens with fairytales. I love a good retelling, and this is one of the most original I’ve read. Rumplestiltskin is one of the more unusual choices for a retelling, but Novik breathed so much new life into this tale.
Spinning Silver is a story I’ll be thinking about for a long time. I’m so glad Petrik decided we should give Novik another chance. I’d be lying by omission if I didn’t confess that my love for this book makes me reconsider my hatred of Uprooted. Perhaps I will reread it one day, to see if my opinions of it have changed. But I can say with certainty that my opinion of this book will stay the same. I found Spinning Silver incredibly atmospheric and well-paced, thought-provoking and empowering and populated by fascinating characters and magic. I have not one single criticism to offer.
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