SPINNING SILVER: A Stark and Thrilling Fantasy Adventure
Author: Naomi Novik
Published: July 10th, 2018
Length: 480 Pages
When the Staryk road appears, it is best to stay inside, stay out of sight, and pray you aren’t carrying any gold. The winters grow longer and harsher as the cold warriors of the Staryk raid and plunder. But Miryem has the health of her mother to concern herself with and only she can do what her soft-hearted, moneylender father refuses to do: collect the debts that the townsfolk owe her family. So, she freezes her heart and does what needs doing and soon her mother is healthy once more. But Miryem doesn’t stop and soon she becomes known for her business acumen and her talent for turning silver into gold. A talent that has not gone unnoticed by the King of the Staryk who desires gold more than anything else. He believes Miryem holds the magic necessary to change both his world and her own, if only she can survive his increasingly impossible challenges.
Spinning Silver’s narrative and characters have shrugged off the romanticism of Naomi Novik’s previous re-imagined fairy tale fantasy, Uprooted, and taken in their place a cold and calculated view of women in relationships (not just those with Kings and Princes). For Miryem and her fellow protagonist Irina, every person is a tapestry of motives, every conversation a dangerous chess match, and there is no winning the game, only forestalling their demise. That this comes through so keenly in Novik’s prose is a testament to the rigorous cadence of each character and her sharp attention to detail and word choice. My favourite character is Irina and I have the conflicting sense of wishing she showed up in the story sooner (it takes about 80 pages) while acknowledging that there really wasn’t any reason for her to show up until her story actually started. Thankfully – and in some ways unlike the other two female protagonists of the story – Irina’s story does not plod and quickly dives into an intellectual battle of wits and wills that exemplifies the prose style of Spinning Silver. She also gets to play out a form of complicated heroism that is refreshing for a heroine in its refusal to accept uncomplicated victories and in its embracing of a noble and melancholic sacrifice for the greater good. And no, that’s not a euphemism for death.
Meanwhile, the Staryk are an incredibly mysterious and terrifying mystical fairy horror that haunts the first hundred pages of Spinning Silver before coming into full view; imagine the Night King from Game of Thrones but with a cruel personality and a perchance for being forgotten by those who have seen him, his wolf-stag mount, and his brilliant, white, winding road that seems to appear and disappear contrary to the laws of space and time. And as if that wasn’t enough, a demon of fire and thirst makes an unexpected (and unexpectedly welcome) addition to the forces of magic and maleficence that the heroes struggle to overcome. It is a delicate process to maintain the unknowable mysticism of fantasy creatures while still allowing the reader some understanding of the rules that govern their behaviour. Not all authors can manage it, and soon a novel’s frightening fae can become predictable and silly. But Novik manages to balance these requirements beautifully. Like Miryem and Irina, I never felt as though I came to fully comprehend the nature of the Staryk or the demon but I certainly understood that these women’s wit and foresight were snatching victories where most humans would have surely failed.
At first, I thought Spinning Silver’s choice to look at women trapped in relationships devoid of love, rather than romantic stories, was more mature. But then it occurred to me that this is both a form of vanity – suggesting I am above such concerns in my stories as love and romance – and dismissive of love stories as narratives with inherent and valuable meaning. There is room for both, and the fact that Spinning Silver has chosen to tell a story featuring one kind of story about courtship and marriage doesn’t invalidate the other. In fact, at times, it really makes you miss and yearn for some loving and lovable male suitors. That said, this book has the greatest fake sex scene in the history of the English canon and I challenge anyone to present one better.
This book would have been 5 out of 5 stars except that it succumbs to the tired and disappointing trope of deciding at the end that violent, asshole men were only violent, assholes because women didn’t take the time to look beneath the surface to find the love and devotion that was just waiting to be called out by their patience. The fact that one man literally has a demon living inside of him who only comes out when nobody is around, but that it really wasn’t his fault, should have made it clear that this trope was around the corner but I held out hope that we could let toxic, violent men simply be condemned as toxic, violent men. The ending this book deserves, that Miryem deserves (and which, it is implied, Irina also deserves), is not the one that she is given because the one that she is given is a fantasy (and yes, I recognize the irony of this complaint). And maybe that fantasy was for someone out there, but it certainly wasn’t what Miryem needed, it certainly wasn’t what I needed, and I’d venture it wasn’t what the people Novik was trying to satisfy needed either.
This novel was obviously clever and deserves to be recognized as such, though the final line is self-congratulatory in a pretty overt way. Novik doesn’t need to tell us she’s clever, its evident in every page. That said, I won’t fault Novik for being proud of what she’s created or for wanting to leave her readers with that thought as they finish the story. Plenty of writers (particularly male writers) go out of their way to let their readers know that they are great architects of cleverness, even when they aren’t. Novik, more than most, has earned the right to a little self-congratulations. So, just like Novik, I’m going to leave you with the conviction that Spinning Silver is an intensely clever, fascinating fantasy/fairy-tale hybrid that I hope is only the sophomore success to a continuing line of fantasy/fairy-tales from this adroit author.