It seems that that there are a number of books in the fantasy genre these days, inspired by eastern European folk tales. Or perhaps it’s just that we are picking them up in our desire to read about the snow and cold winds which we never see here. Spinning Silver is Naomi Novik‘s second such book after Uprooted (and the second one that we have read – see our review) and is very loosely inspired by the Rumplestiltskin story.
Novik’s stories are filled with strong female characters who know their minds and don’t look to others to tell them what to do. Spinning Silver has three strong female protagonists who, despite coming from different backgrounds and being very different people, are very similar in the strengths they exhibit. They each have an innate ability to take hold of a situation and do what is required, without looking to others for help.
Each chapter in the book is from a different character’s point of view and is, strangely enough, not at all confusing. The book starts with Miryem the daughter of a kind hearted and unsuccessful Jewish money lender in a small town. It is important to mention here that her family were Jews, because of the antisemitism exhibited by the surrounding characters in the story. The impact comes from the almost matter of fact way in which the prejudices are written of and also from the familiar attitudes of ‘them and us’ which still exist in any society. When Miryem finds her family close to starvation, she takes over her father’s business, hardens her heart and becomes known for turning silver into gold. As a result, she attracts the attention of the cruel and arrogant Staryk (supernatural elvish beings) King who wants her to turn silver into gold for him.
Then there is Wanda, the battered daughter of a drunk poor farmer. Her mother who was buried under a magical tree manages, to some extent, to protect Wanda and her brothers but ultimately it is Wanda who has to protect herself and her brothers from their father and from a marriage that she does not want. Lastly there is Irina, the daughter of a Duke. She is married off by her father to the Tsar who is possessed by a demon who wants Irina for her part staryk blood. She then takes it upon herself to keep the demon at bay and somehow save her people from it.
Spinning Silver is ultimately a book about the courage of these three women whose stories eventually link up during the course of the novel, though it may not be evident to the reader at once. All three of them have the ability to grit their teeth and get down to doing not just what was necessary but also empowering themselves. It is about taking care, not just yourself, but of others around you. It is also a book about families and about paying your debts.
We enjoyed Spinning Silver much more than Uprooted (although we did love Uprooted when we read it). It is a much more layered tale and though the story was magical and at times fantastical, yet the tone of it was so practical. Just like the protagonists.