by Naomi Novik
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted May 1, 2019
I have now read all of this year's Nebula finalist novels. Naomi Novik's Spinning Silver is also a Hugo finalist (and more recently the Locus). Its core story is a loose retelling of Rumplestiltskin, but that's just the beginning. Many other fantasy elements are incorporated, some probably inspired by Polish tales the author heard or read as a child, with maybe a few original ideas added. It is an expansion of a novelette of the same name, a finalist for a Locus Award in 2017, published in the original anthology The Starlit Wood.
It is very good, and recommended. However, the further into the story I got the less I cared for the fantasy elements, and the more I cared about the characters. Everything is in first-person, but from several different characters. The first and most important is Miryem Mandelstam, the daughter of a moneylender in a small village in the land of Lithvas. Her father is a good man, but is easily cowed by those who owe him money. Miryem takes on that duty herself. She had already learned how to keep his books, now she becomes his collector, in some cases trading for goods or services instead of coin. She is still able to accumulate enough coin to travel to the city of Vysnia to deposit them into her grandfather's bank. Word of her financial acumen spreads, and it is said she is able to turn silver to gold, which brings her to the attention of the Staryk King, ruler of the fairie land of Winter. He presents to her six silver coins, demanding she turn them into gold. Since she can't do that by magic, she takes the coins to a jewelry maker in Vysnia's market square, who melts them down and fashions a ring, which is then sold to the local duke for gold coin. Next, the fairie king brings her sixty silver coins, which are used to create a beautiful necklace, again sold to the duke, who is accumulating treasures for his daughter's dowry, hopeful they will attract the attention of the unmarried Tsar. The next task is to turn six hundred silver coins into a crown, the sale of which brings a sum of gold coin bountiful enough for significant profit for Miryem, a very generous payment to the jeweler, as well as six hundred gold coin for the Staryk King. The silver ring, necklace, and crown have a magical ability to mesmerize anyone who gazes upon them, but that is only part of the reason Tsar Mirnatius takes the duke's daughter, Irina, as his bride.
In addition to chapters, or sections of chapters, narrated by Miryem and Irina, we also read the story of Wanda, a peasant girl who comes to work for Miryem's parents to help pay off her father's debt. Also, Irina's nursemaid Magra, who has been faithful to Irina since her mother died when she was a child. I first thought we would only get the perspective of women, but later, Wanda's younger brother Stepon chimes in, and there are a couple of segments from Mirnatius as well. If I'm not mistaken, that covers all the narrators. Not Miryem's mother or father, or Wanda's other brother Sergey, nor the Staryk King, whose name is withheld so that no one would have power over him. Even after Miryem learns his name she does not reveal it. Miryem is taken to the Winter lands, directed to turn all of the Staryk King's silver into gold. He has a lot of silver. Fantasy doesn't have to be logical, and this part isn't. I assume silver is the only precious metal in the fairie mountain, but the Staryk King has other magical abilities, why can he not turn his own silver into gold? Staryk have raided the mortal realm, which they refer to as the sunlit world, for as long as anyone can remember. Why didn't they just steal all the gold and have it along with their silver? How does Miryem all of a sudden have the ability to turn silver to gold just by touch once she is in the fairie world? Of course, if none of these things happened the story would be very short. Like a novelette I guess. Which I haven't read, so I don't know how many of these story elements it contained.
I won't get into Mirnatius' story, other than to say he's not as evil as you might first assume, just possessed by something long at war with both man and Staryk. The strengths of this story lie in the bravery and fortitude of many. Miryem is proud of her Jewish heritage, yet well aware of the persecutions her people have had to endure. Not all are against them though. The duke seems to hold her grandfather in high regard, although that might have more to do with how much money the banker has invested in the city's defense and infrastructure. Irina at first seems a spoiled and vain woman, but she proves to be her people's champion, just as much as Miryem is for other Jews and the Staryk, who welcome her as their Queen. Wanda proved that even very humble beginnings did not have to determine her fate. She was intelligent enough to learn to read and do the math to maintain Miryem's books, and take over the collections after Miryem was taken to the Winter world. Her original prejudice against Jews was reversed due to the Mandelstam's generosity towards her and her brothers after their father died. They had come from an abusive environment, but learn what true family is: love, sharing, trust. In the end, they all become a new-found family, living and working together in a new home, and that even before the Staryk King bestowed great wealth upon them when he took Miryem as his bride. In the midst of all the magic and mayhem, the most important elements are loyalty and commitment to duty. If Miryem made a promise she kept it, even if it meant separation from her family. The Staryk King is forced to honor his promises, even as it pained him to do so. Even the demon possessing Mirnatius is forced to abide by the dictates of Irina, who not only retains her crown as Tsarina, she also wins the love and gratitude of her husband. The Winter and Summer lands learn to live in balance, bringing prosperity to all.
Come for the magic, stay for the pathos and drama.
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