Lila Garrott reviews Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik. (Del Rey, 978-0-399-18098-9, $28.00, 434 pp, hc.) July 2018.

Naomi Novik follows Uprooted with a brilliant retelling of Rumpelstiltskin set in a medieval pseudo-Russia. Instead of a miller’s daughter, the protagonist, Miryem, is a moneylender’s daughter. Instead of spinning straw into gold, she can spin silver coins into gold, if she has time to take them through the marketplace, first. The King of the Staryk, the magical and dangerous elves who sometimes hunt humans for gold, hears her mention this talent, and decides to test it.

The novel widens its scope beyond the original fairytale, eventually including the destiny of two kingdoms, a haunted tsar, a sorcerous winter, and elements from ‘‘Cinderella’’, among other stories, but the most important way it widens its scope is that Miryem and her family are explicitly Jewish. This is Jewish high fantasy, in which Jewish characters have interiority and agency, and some are more religious than others, and the Torah and its lessons inform how people think and react. This is a fantasy novel in which people plan around the time of Shabbat. This is not a book about pogroms, or the Holocaust; it is aware of religious persecution, but that is not its subject. It is a book in which Judaism is the substrate the same way that Christianity is the (mostly unexamined) substrate of so many other fantasy novels. I have researched the subject before, and this may well be the first book of its kind: there is staggeringly little Jewish fantasy, compared to the number of Jewish people who work and write in the field.

And doing this with a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin is a stroke of genius, because that story has often been associated with the stereotypical view of Jews in medieval Europe, as child-stealers. Rumpelstiltskin has been used to reinforce the blood libel. This book is an act of reclamation on a very deep level.

It is also marvelous to read. Novik’s characters are compelling, and the moral choices they are faced with are genuinely difficult. Her Russia is a hard place, and awareness of the crops and of how close starvation is lends her narrative urgency and realism. Her tone can move from gently humorous, to sweepingly epic, to piercingly sad easily, and back again.

And her world is focused on women, in a society which is not kind to them, on the ways that women can defend themselves, become themselves, and interact with the various forms of magic. Some of the magic in this book is magic, and some is good bookkeeping, which is also magic, and that’s wonderful, that appreciation of the magic of letters and numbers, the magic of negotiation, the magic of noticing. There’s the magic that makes a hundred years of winter in one summer’s day, and the magic that re-engineers a knitting pattern, and Novik does not prioritize the power or the beauty of one over the other.

This is not a perfect novel, of course. The  pacing is peculiar in the latter third, and there are perhaps two or three more plot complications than are precisely necessary. The dramatic energy peaks three separate times, and while the first two come off well enough, by the time the third is reached the sheer amount of drama is a little tiring.

But, in the end, the book holds together, and the questions about who will marry, and who will die, and whether Miryem will turn the right silver into gold when she needs to, are emotionally compelling. The story-pattern may be that of a fairytale, but that doesn’t mean it lacks suspense, and every happy-ever-after here is earned. Uprooted was a great success, both artistically and otherwise, signifying Novik’s move into a field initially plotted out by writers such as Robin McKinley and Jane Yolen, who reframe and redraw the commonality of European folktales and folklore. This novel shows that Novik is not merely working in that field, but advancing it. It is, in fact, even better than Uprooted.

This review and more like it in the June 2018 issue of Locus.

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