Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat. You might think, due to their similar cover designs, that Spinning Silver is a sequel to Uprooted. Rest assured that is not the case, both are unique stand-alone novels with equally beautiful covers. You can read one or the other, or both in any order.
Spinning Silver is the story of Miryem, a money lender’s daughter. As you might have guessed from her name, Miryem is Jewish. Because of her family’s religion and her father’s profession, Miryem’s family is shunned and lives on the outskirts of their small European town.
The thing is, Miryem’s father is not a very effective money lender. That is to say, he’s good at loaning money out, but not good at collecting it. For years his neighbors have taken advantage of his good nature, leaving his family poor. One winter, as Miryem’s mother is so sick that she hovers at death’s door, our young protagonist has had enough. She takes her father’s ledger and begins collecting on his debts.
Naomi Novik made a bold move with this novel. Miryem is not stereotypically “likable”. She’s hard-edged and driven to save her mother. She has personality traits that might be considered admirable in a male character, but would turn some readers off from a female character. I liked this about her. I liked that she didn’t get help for her mother by befriending a woodland creature who turned out to be a faerie and gifted her with medicine. She went out, she worked hard, and she got back what her family was owed.
Once Miryem tastes some success, she continues to collect on her family’s debts, and builds on her profits with smart trades. Her family doesn’t like the hardness and coldness they see in her, but Miryem feels proud that her family doesn’t have to starve and suffer through the winter anymore.
This wouldn’t be much of a fantasy novel, except that Miryem boasts that her trading abilities let her turn silver into gold, and so of course she attracts the attention of a faerie king and now we are firmly in fantasy territory.
There are several other intersecting stories going on here, including that of another young woman in the village who comes to work for Miryem’s family, and a young noblewoman unwillingly engaged to the tsar. There’s a theme running throughout of women’s limited roles, although sometimes the men are just as constrained by their own rules.
This book worked for me on several levels. The first was that the faerie folk in it were clearly operating under their own set of rules. I have this pet peeve where the fae are constantly portrayed as agents of chaos. The thing is, if you actually sit down and read about faeries, they’re not chaotic. They are very bound by rules and codes of conduct, and have specific guidelines for how humans should interact with them. They only seem chaotic because their rules are different from our own — but often they are more bound by their strange taboos than we are by our own more flexible morals.
Anyway, I digress. I have opinions about faeries, OK?
I found that Spinning Silver was well-paced and kept me guessing as to what would happen. Even though I recognized many of the fairy tale tropes being put into play, I wasn’t sure how the author would utilize them. I was satisfied by how Novik acknowledged the traditions she was working with, while also giving them her own twist.
I also appreciated that there were shades of grey at play here. At one point, two of the characters end up at odds with each other. Both believes that what they are doing is right, and as a reader it would be hard to say that either is wrong. We have two people who are taking actions that believe they are the best way to protect the people they feel an obligation to. It’s complicated, messy, and a little heartbreaking to watch them both try to come to the right answer.
Anyway, I highly recommend this one and I hope that Naomi Novik writes more like it.