Review: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

I’d read Novik’s short story version of ‘Spinning Silver’ in The Starlit Wood, and I was surprised to hear that she had decided to turn that short story into a full-length novel. This isn’t unprecedented, but I did wonder how Novik would create essentially a parallel universe version of her short story, and if she would change the ending. The short story is loosely based on the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale, but when I say loosely I mean loosely. We follow a poor moneylender’s daughter, Miryem, as she becomes quite the businesswoman to the point where she can “turn silver to gold.” She attracts the attention of the Staryk, cruel fairies who love gold, and is put on an impossible mission of turning silver to gold, with her life at stake.

I came running to Spinning Silver (the novel) after finishing Uprooted, which ultimately was an enthralling read even if I did have some complaints on the issue of Stockholm syndrome. I had more or less forgotten the ending of the short story, so I did not try to remember it as I plunged into the novel.

[Spoilers Abound]

I’m so sorry that I can’t write a review without spoiling everything. But here we go.

The short story had a feminist theme, and the novel even more so. Novik expands on her short story by adding two leading ladies to the original Miryem, along with an additional three PoVs that are filtered in as the story progresses. The additional two leading ladies were present in the short story, but they were really just supporting characters.

In the novel, Wanda is not just a quiet servant helping to pay off her father’s debts to Miryem’s family, but a poor girl used by her father and afraid of being sold off to some husband to push out children until her death. At first, I feared boredom during Wanda’s PoV, because she starts as a very simple girl with simple thoughts. But Novik shows us the trueness of Wanda’s heart, and earns the family bond between Wanda and her brothers under the terror of their abusive father. Wanda starts small, and though she remains unambitious, she very much grows to her own person. I was rooting for Wanda, by the end, even though her story lacks the raw drama of Miryem’s and Irina’s.

The third leading lady is the duke’s daughter, Irina. In both the short story and the novel, Miryem is tasked with turning Staryk silver into gold. Miryem does this by turning that silver into jewelry, which she sells in exchange for gold to the duke. The duke then uses this Staryk jewelry, which draws the eye through its magic, to attract the tsar to marry his otherwise plain daughter: Irina. The tsar does marry Irina, but this is where the novel departs from the short story. The tsar is not drawn to Irina for the allure of her Staryk jewelry, but for a more sinister reason. The two of them begin as adversaries, and Irina raises herself up into a strong woman worthy of ruling her kingdom along the way.

The first 100 pages of the novel are basically a prolonged version of the short story, with Wanda’s PoV added. Irina’s PoV pops up soon after that.

We learn a ton more on the Staryk customs and culture as Miryem is drawn into their world. Some of the traditions felt a bit arbitrary, but it is fantasy and these are fairies, so I suspended my disbelief and went along for the ride.

Like in Uprooted where tree folk represent an environmental/nature figure, the Staryk similarly seem to represent an active form of nature. Humans wish to push back against the threat they see in the Staryk, while the Staryk are similarly only trying to survive. Miryem, with the help of Wanda and Irina, is the one to find the beautiful balance between the two.

Novik beautifully balances Miryem’s desire for family tradition with her ambition. Miryem’s family fears that her heart will go cold as she goes about collecting interest from struggling families, as she lifts their family up with the money she has earned. Novik does not deny Miryem’s flaw of lacking empathy, but she does not condemn it, either. In the end, Miryem seems so come into herself that the flaws seem only to make the picture whole. Too often, writers produce a theme proclaiming ambition to be a folly to goodness in their women characters. Novik declares, in both Uprooted and Spinning Silver, that you can balance ambition with her all-important theme of family. Now that I commend her for.

No one in Spinning Silver is flawless, and their flaws are certainly not gone by the end of the book. Characters mature and grow and find family in one another. The tsar is a particularly compelling character that I thought Novik might condemn by the end of the book, but she did not. It was so very real, the way Novik’s characters went back and forth on whether someone was good or evil. In the end, the question was no longer being asked, because the answer was a lot longer than one word.

I knew, I knew, from the moment the Staryk king walked onto the page, that there would be a romance between him and Miryem. It’s textbook old-monster-dude and stubborn-young-girl romance. Whatever, I fall for it every time.

The two romances are only hinted at through the story, and wrapped up hastily with a bow at the end. I was disappointed in that, given Uprooted devoted a lot more time and passion to the romance.

Again, I thought the ending was rushed here. Novik does end on a dramatic note for her main PoVs Irina and Miryem, but I wished we had just one or two more chapters to let it breathe. Novik did manage to keep the endings of the short story and the novel more or less the same. I did very much enjoy Spinning Silver in the end, but I longed for just a tiny bit more. With so many PoVs, I suppose there wasn’t time. While I would declare Spinning Silver as a better book than Uprooted, I definitely personally enjoyed Uprooted more. In the end, both are great fairy tales spun into modern stories.

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