Tag: Naomi Novik

Spinning Silver

Cover image for Spinning Silver by Naomi Novikby Naomi Novik

ISBN 978-0-399-18099-6

 “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.

You might also like Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson

Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2016

These are my favourite fiction books read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2016. Click the titles for links to the full reviews. Check back on Thursday for my top non-fiction picks.

The Hero’s Walk

ISBN 0-345-45092-2

the-heros-walkSripathi Rao and his family live in the once-grand Big House, on Brahmin Street in the seaside Indian town of Toturpuram. His mother Ammayya, his wife Nirmala, and his unmarried sister Putti all reside under his roof, along with his unemployed adult son, Arun. Absent, but never spoken of, is his daughter, Maya, who went away to school in North America, and then defied her family by breaking off her traditional engagement to marry a white man. It has been nine years since Maya’s exile, but still her father stubbornly refuses to take her calls or allow her to visit. But everything changes when a phone call from Canada brings the news that Maya and her husband are dead, leaving their daughter Nandana orphaned. Apart from the initial upset, the events of The Hero’s Walk are mostly quiet and subtle, though the environs are lively and colourful. The tension comes from the interactions of a cast of idiosyncratic and richly drawn characters who inhabit Big House. Anita Rau Badami has crafted a fascinating and complicated family dynamic that is thoroughly disrupted by Nandana’s arrival. The passing of the grudge against Maya with her death will cause Sripathi, and indeed all the Raos, to re-examine their prejudices and preconceptions. One great tragedy leads to many new beginnings.

Categories: Canadian 

Ruin and Rising 

ISBN 978-0-8050-9461-9

Cover image for Ruin and Rising by Leigh BardugoAlthough I’ve singled out Ruin and Rising here, this is honestly a tip of the hat to Leigh Bardugo’s entire Grisha Trilogy, as well as Six of Crows, which is set in the same world. I read all four over the course of the year, and I can’t wait to read Crooked Kingdom, which completes the Six of Crows duology. The Grisha Trilogy centers on Alina Starkov, a military cartographer who is belatedly discovered to be a sun summoner, a rare type of Grisha who can call and manipulate light. I listened to the audio version of the series, which is excellently performed by Lauren Fortgang, who is also a member of the composite cast for the audio version of Six of Crows. On more than one occasion I found myself sitting in a parking lot, not wanting to turn off my car until I found out what happened next. The action is fast-faced and Bardugo’s world-building is excellent.  Add in charismatic characters like Nikolai and Genya, and grouchy-yet-endearing personages such as Baghra and Zoya, and this series had me hooked from the get-go.

Categories: Fantasy, Young Adult 

Sorcerer to the Crown 

ISBN 978-0-425-28337-0

Cover image for Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen ChoI read Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho as part of the Diverse Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club hosted by Naz at Read Diverse Books. Cho’s tale is set in a magical England during the Napoleonic Wars, and centers on Zacharias Wythe, adopted black son of Sir Stephen Wythe, and the newest Sorcerer Royal following his guardian’s death. Unhappy with his ascension, England’s traditionalist magical families have begun to agitate, blaming Zacharias for England’s long-standing decrease in magical atmosphere. Hoping to uncover the reason for the ebb of magic, Zacharias travels to the British border with Faery. Along the way he acquires a traveling companion, one Miss Prunella Gentleman, the mixed-race daughter of a deceased English magician who brought her to England from India shortly before his untimely demise. In both writing style and setting, Sorcerer to the Crown is very reminiscent of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but Cho’s protagonists are vastly different from Clarke’s, and they are the driving force behind the story. Cho also weaves in a plotline that addresses the colonial society in which the story takes place, revealing machinery that is normally invisible in Regency fiction. Although obviously highly socially conscious, Sorcerer to the Crown is also a great adventure, with a good bit of political intrigue, and even a dash of romance.

Categories: Fantasy

Station Eleven

ISBN 978-0-3853-5330-4

Cover image for Station Eleven by Emily St. John MandelAt a production of King Lear in Toronto, paparazzo-turned-paramedic Jeevan Chaudhary charges onstage in the middle of the show to perform CPR on lead actor Arthur Leander. Unbeknownst to everyone, this is the last night of the old world; even as the show goes on, recent arrivals on a flight from Moscow are flooding into local hospitals, stricken with the Georgia Flu. Fifteen years later, Kirsten Raymonde, who played the child-version of Cordelia in that long ago production of King Lear, is a member of the Traveling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors that trek between the far-flung settlements the post-flu world playing music and performing Shakespeare. Station Eleven is intricately woven from multiple perspectives and shifting timelines, beginning with Jeevan’s take on the early hours of the epidemic. The non-linear timeline and complex array of characters will undoubtedly be off-putting for some, but for fans of this type of story-telling, Emily St. John Mandel has handled it masterfully. Mandel does not linger on the terrible first days of the pandemic when survivors were fleeing the cities in search of somewhere safe. Instead, for the most part, the focus is on what comes after, and how that reflects on what once was. Pop culture remnants form an important touchstone for those who are old enough to remember the pre-apocalypse world, and these memories are juxtaposed with the many productions of Shakespeare in the text. Station Eleven sits alongside other literary takes on the apocalypse, from Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake to Chang-rae Lee’s  On Such a Full Sea, but it wins me over by effortlessly balancing comic books and Star Trek right alongside Shakespeare.

Categories: Canadian, Dystopian, Science Fiction

Uprooted

ISBN 978-0-8041-7905-8

Cover image for Uprooted by Naomi NovikAgnieszka and Kasia have been best friends throughout their childhood in the village of Dvernik, bonded by the fact that they are both Dragon-born girls. Every ten years, the Dragon—the sorcerer who protects the valley from the dark magic of the Wood—takes a seventeen-year-old girl to live with him in the Tower, and both Agnieszka and Kasia will be seventeen the year his next servant is chosen. Everyone knows that it is Kasia, beautiful, and graceful, and competent, who will be chosen. But when the Dragon comes to make his choice, it is not Kasia who attracts his attention. Uprooted is full of complex characters with individual motivations. The Wood is a terrifying arch-villain, but it is the smaller antagonists that add depth to the tale. I also really enjoyed the fact that Naomi Novik continued to centre Agnieszka’s friendship with Kasia, even after Agnieszka is taken to the tower. Uprooted also has definite flavours of my favourite fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast, where a young woman is taken into the castle of a monster—or in this case a man with a monstrous reputation—and held there alone.This is a dark, lushly imagined fantasy that hits all the sweet-spots for a fairy tale retelling.

Categories: Fairy Tales, Fantasy

Honestly, this was a hard list to compile. I read around 150 books this year, and a lot of them were excellent. If you love vampires, don’t skip Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Sylvain Neuvel’s sci-fi debut Sleeping Giants is not to be missed. I adored The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, and I am enjoying Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series tremendously. Maybe I needed to do a Top 10 this year?

What were your favourite fiction reads of 2016?

Uprooted

Cover image for Uprooted by Naomi Novikby Naomi Novik

ISBN 978-0-8041-7905-8

“Those the walkers carried into the Wood were less lucky. We didn’t know what happened to them, but they came back out sometimes, corrupted in the worst way: smiling and cheerful, unharmed. They seemed almost themselves to anyone who didn’t know them well, and you might spend half a day talking with one of them and never realize anything was wrong, until you found yourself taking up a knife and cutting off your own hand, putting out your own eyes, your own tongue, while they kept talking all the while, smiling, horrible.”

Agnieszka and Kasia have been best friends throughout their childhood in the village of Dvernik, bonded by the fact that they are both Dragon-born girls. Every ten years, the Dragon—the sorcerer who protects the valley from the dark magic of the Wood—takes a seventeen-year-old girl to live with him in the Tower, and both Agnieszka and Kasia will be seventeen the year his next servant is chosen. Everyone knows that it is Kasia, beautiful, and graceful, and competent, who will be chosen. And after ten years, she will emerge from the tower rich and educated, and leave the valley forever. But when the Dragon comes to make his choice, it is not Kasia who attracts his attention.

Uprooted has definite flavours of Beauty and the Beast, where a young woman is taken into the castle of a monster—or in this case a man with a monstrous reputation—and held there alone. The Dragon employs no other servants, and entertains no guests, unless called upon by the Crown, which he is bound to serve. Though it takes her time to admit it to herself, there is a reason Agnieszka attracted the Dragon’s attention despite being less beautiful than Kasia. She is a witch, and magical talent is too valuable in Polnya to be squandered. So expecting a role as servant, Agnieszka instead finds herself apprenticed, and drafted into the war against the Wood.

In most stories, Kasia would have disappeared after Agnieszka was taken, having served her part in the tale. But Uprooted continues to turn on their friendship, even eventually forcing them to confront and move past the hidden resentment that existed between them by virtue of being Dragon-born. While not destined for the life she had expected—riches and education and freedom in exchange for ten years of her youth and unquestioning service—Kasia still has an exceptional path before her, which is entwined with Agnieszka’s.

Uprooted is full of complex characters with individual motivations. Sarkan is determined to hold the Wood at bay, whatever the cost. Prince Marek is determined to somehow save his mother, Queen Hanna, from the Wood, even though she disappeared twenty years ago. Meanwhile his father, the King of Polnya, has his eyes set on a new international alliance that will help protect Polnya against Rosya. The wizards Alosha and Solya are caught up in politics and war due to their lives at court, and the monk-wizard Brother Ballo is consumed by his quest for knowledge. All these warring motivations come to bear on the question of how to fight the Wood, and prevent it from swallowing the valley, or corrupting the kingdom. The Wood is a terrifying arch-villain, but it is the smaller antagonists that add depth to the tale.

I started Uprooted listening to the audiobook, narrated by Julia Emelin, a Russian-born voice actress.  It took me a while to settle into the accent she used to perform the book, but within an hour I was absolutely hooked into the tale. I was enjoying the story so much three quarters of the way through, that I decided to go ahead and buy the paperback before I reached the end. Fortunately, it did not disappoint! This is a dark, lushly imagined fantasy that hits all the sweet-spots for a fairy tale retelling. I’m tempted to pick it back up and start again from the beginning.

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