“Thrice, mortal maiden… Thrice you shall turn silver to gold for me, or be changed to ice yourself. And then, if you manage it, I will make you my queen.”
Winter is long in the kingdom of Lithvas, and every year it seems to grow longer. With scant harvests and crops ruined by frost, no one wants to repay their debts. Miryem’s family has been driven into poverty by her father’s soft heart, and inability to collect what is owed him. But when her mother falls ill, Miryem hardens herself, and sets out to gather back that which has been loaned. Soon she garners a fierce reputation for being able to turn silver into gold, and her family prospers, even as resentment towards them grows. Worse, her reputation attracts not just the mutters of their resentful neighbours, but the attention of the Staryk, winter fey with a rapacious appetite for gold. One winter’s night, the king of the Staryk knocks at her door, demanding three impossible feats. If she fails, her life is forfeit. If she succeeds, he promises—or perhaps threatens—to make her his queen.
Spinning Silver includes three primary narrators; Miryem the Jewish moneylender, her gentile servant girl, Wanda, and Irina, ill-favoured daughter of the Duke of Vysnia. However, as the story goes on, Novik freely incorporates additional perspectives, including Wanda’s youngest brother, Stepon; Magreta, nurse and chaperone to Irina; and Mirnatius, Tsar of Lithvas. Each perspective is distinct, and as the new ones are added, we are offered the opportunity to see the preceding characters through their eyes. When Wanda comes to Miryem’s house, she perceives the prayer they say over their dinner as a spell, and the math that Miryem uses to keep her accounts as magic. But soon Miryem becomes familiar to Wanda, and later, when Stepon’s voice is added, we review the confounding events through the innocent aspect of a child.
Hunger runs through the book, motivating each character in their own way. Wanda’s hunger is what drives her to Miryem’s doorstep, her farmer father unable to repay the money he has borrowed, because he drinks away what little he manages to earn, hungering after oblivion. At Miryem’s table, Wanda finds food, work, and comfort, satisfying appetites and ambitions she could never acknowledge at home. But she is also positioned to see just how Miryem’s hunger to never live in poverty again puts them all in terrible danger, first from the resentful neighbours, and then from supernatural forces beyond their ken. Meanwhile, mortal men hunger for faerie silver, enabling Miryem to perform the impossible feats demanded of her, while sun-warmed human gold is hungered after by the Staryk, for unknown ends. Worst of all, a demon who has made a particularly advantageous bargain possesses an appetite that threatens to swallow both Lithvas, and the Staryk realms.
Naomi Novik takes the greed that underpins the faerie tale of Rumpelstiltskin, and affixes it to the anti-Semitism that is tied up in the history of money lending in Europe. Miryem’s literal ability to lend out silver, and then consolidate the interest into gold at her grandfather’s bank makes her both useful and hated within her village, and coveted by a faerie king who has no other use for a mortal girl. Whereas Uprooted was based in the Polish Catholic roots of her mother’s family Novik attributes some of this inspiration to the history of her father’s Lithuanian Jewish family, though Jewish reviewers have had mixed reactions to her execution.
As a counterpart to Novik’s preceding book, Uprooted, Spinning Silver is much in the same vein. It is only loosely inspired by any particular faerie tale, and both stories play with elements of a magical being who takes a mortal girl as his captive helper for his own ends. Neither man figures on the agency or ingenuity of the girl. Both are set in a fantastical version of Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, though they are not explicitly the same world, and do not overlap outright. If the fact of Uprooted’s being a standalone left you wanting more, Spinning Silver might just scratch that itch.
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