Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Well, I've had a run of really good books lately, and this is yet another one.
I've followed Naomi Novik throughout her Temeraire alternate-history series (with dragons), and her Uprooted was one of my favorite books from a few years ago. Uprooted seemed to signal a new phase to her career, of expanding upon and retelling familiar (and not so familiar) fairy tales, and adding her own unique spin to them. Spinning Silver continues this tradition, as a very loose interpretation of Rumplestiltskin.
By far the strength of this book is the characters, with the lovely, evocative writing and the well-drawn setting close behind. There are three main viewpoint characters. The first, and the nominal protagonist, is Miryem, the moneylender's daughter who takes over the family business from her ineffectual father and whose real-world skill in turning a profit attracts the attention of the king of the Staryk, Novik's version of the Fae. Wanda is the poor daughter of a drunken father who just wants herself and her brothers to survive, and is drawn into Miryem's orbit in trying to pay off her father's debt. Finally, there is Irina, the daughter of a duke who is also a descendant, through her mother, of one of the Staryk, and who is a pawn in her father's attempts to ingratiate himself with the tsar of their country, Lithvas. Irina ends up unwillingly married to the same tsar, who (view spoiler)[unbeknownst to everyone is possessed by a fire demon. (hide spoiler)]
(There are also a few other viewpoint characters. This book is told in its entirety in first person, and there are no notations of POV switches, just line breaks. However, within a paragraph or two I knew who was narrating and where we were. This speaks highly to Naomi Novik's skill in characterization and plotting, to handle these POV changes so seamlessly.)
As you can see, each of these young women is being held down and oppressed, to one degree or another, by the men in her life, and all their arcs involve trying to free themselves. This book's other themes include duty and sacrifice, stepping up and taking responsibility, and the love of a found family as well as a born one. The pacing is measured and deliberate, especially in the beginning, but everything that might be construed as making the book "slow" becomes important in the end. And the prose is just so beautiful: you can feel the icy puffs of the Winter King's breath, and the silver coins slipping through Miryem's hands as she changes them to gold.
The only character I gave a bit of side-eye to is the king of the Staryk, who was a stubborn, prideful, arrogant ass, at least in the beginning. But that same stubborn pride, and his insistence on bargaining to get what he wants, is the thing that helps Miryem to grow and gives her the strength to defeat the enemy of the Staryk in the end. Even the designated "bad guy" (the tsar) has a revealed backstory that caused a few second thoughts, at least in this reader. This is just a lovely, magical book all the way around, and I highly recommend it.
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