Book Review: Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik

Spinning Silver was the January choice for my work book club. And while I didn’t finish the novel in time for the meeting, I’m still going to write an evaluation here. Spoilers to come, and my overall verdict is 4/5 stars. Would recommend.

Organization

We’ll start with quasi-criticism. I wasn’t repulsed by the organization or anything, but I thought breaking the sections of the book up a little would be helpful.

The book has two to three story arcs within it, so I wouldn’t have minded those being designated as Parts I, II, and III so that keeping the threads straight was a bit easier.

We also jump perspectives a lot without any indication for whose perspective we’ve shifted to. I could still follow the story, but I sometimes had to go back and re-read after figuring out whose perspective a section was from. We start out focused on Miryem’s life, and then we get Wanda, Irina, Magda, Mirnatius, and Stepon. I loved how Miryem’s, Wanda’s, and Irina’s separate views were core to the novel, but six perspectives sometimes felt like a bit much.

Writing Quality

The writing style is very heavy on the telling rather than the showing. I still enjoyed the book and wanted to know what would happen next right then, but sometimes the telling became information dumping that simultaneously gave me needed information and took me out of the story.

For example, while I liked Magda, the switch to her perspective involved her convenient ruminations on her life and her history with Irina. Whole sections of backstory.

The development of the Staryk magic system was also a little unclear at times. For example, I spent quite a while confused about why the Staryks having more gold made the winter come. And then finally when Miryem was battling the demon, we’re all at once told that the gold holds the sunlight, reminded that the demon doesn’t come out much during the day, and then the gold starts destroying demon-dude. Which distracted from Miryem being awesome because I was busy going “wait, what?”

We’re also told that the demon feasting on the Staryk king will somehow kill all the Staryk people, but we don’t ever learn why that is. We just kind of hear it from the Staryk king and accept it.

Themes

Now we will get into my raving about the book. The story is a loose retelling of Rumplestiltskin, set in Eastern Europe. In this story, the anti-Semitic villagers are, like this version of the miller’s daughter, always looking to get out of paying their debts, even though their doing so is leaving Miryem and her family to starve. Their neighbors consider healthy boundaries and deadlines unforgiveable greed, and Miryem has to be very strict with them in order to help her family survive.

However, as Miryem’s mother worries that Miryem has become too hard, we see that her setting boundaries is actually helping one of the most vulnerable debtors. Wanda, who has to come work for Miryem to pay off her father’s debt, is reprieved from being married off and gets much-needed meals, education, confidence, and money that empower her.

The flipping of anti-Semitic tropes is a fascinating historical commentary and take on the Rumplestiltskin story.

Characters

We also see how the women in the book challenge and overcome men who attempt to use, manipulate, and dominate them — Miryem with the Staryk king, Irina with the tsar/demon, and Wanda with her father. In a very patriarchal world, they carve out places for themselves and act as their own agents. Born as pawns, they become queens with actual power. Literally, in Miryem’s and Irina’s cases.

Each of the women make hard choices that affect entire kingdoms. And while they make mistakes and heartbreaking sacrifices, they work together to make a better future for their peoples, largely through their cleverness. It’s pretty awesome.

Relationships

The relationships in this book were one of the most interesting aspects for me. The marriages are of the time period in that they’re largely political and financial transactions, and the possibility of love is just the icing on the cake. And the author and the characters don’t try to soften that reality by romanticizing it for the modern audience.

Irina thinks about the possibility of eventually having love and sexual pleasure, and Miryem is happy when the Staryk king courts her according to Jewish customs and learns to value her, her faith, and her people. But we don’t ever pretend that marriage ideals of the time period are the same thing they are today. The book is about bargains and survival, and the relationships are a part of that.

Which is unusual, even in historical fantasy novels. And it means that in commenting on a feminist perspective on the relationships, my commentary will be very different than it would be if the author were romanticizing what happened.

In this context, marriage is largely transactional as a matter of survival. Also power. So we’re happy about it to the degree that it’s not straight human trafficking. Love and emotional suitability aren’t really considerations.

So we’ll instead look at mutual benefits and the degree to which the women get to choose their own fates and find basic respect and companionship.

Wanda escapes a marriage that would essentially just consist of her father selling her. She does not want to marry, and her life as a single woman is her happy ending. All good there.

Irina doesn’t really choose her husband, but she also doesn’t oppose the marriage because she sees it as a path to greater freedom. And then her husband’s demon tries to feast on her soul, so that’s not great, but she destroys the demon, becoming the tsarina she’s chosen to be.

So in the end, Irina has chosen the role of tsarina and demonstrated that she has power in this marriage and control of her own fate. Plus now that Mirnatius isn’t being possessed, he seems like he’s also cool with being married to her and that maybe they could like each other.

Miryem’s marriage is at first imprisonment, and the wealth and power it brings her doesn’t change that.

However, Miryem creates her own power in this relationship, and then later both parties choose to be married again in the Jewish tradition, with economic benefit going to both communities and the possibility of future love.

From a modern perspective, not great, but since marriage here isn’t really about love so much as basic respect and survival, this is about the best the time period can do. So I don’t like how marriage worked in the past, but I can’t really criticize the relationships at the end of the book, since they don’t exist in a vacuum.

And now I have to go think about how we romanticize stories like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Cinderella” by forcing our modern expectations of love on tales that are much more about survival and economics than feelings.

So in the end: Would definitely recommend this book. I gave it 4/5 stars because the worldbuilding was a little clunky.

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