If you like: Myths or fables, Russian stories and settings, a bit of magic, cold and wintry climates, small aspects of faith woven into the storyline, multiple narrators and their rotating points-of-view, books over 400 pages
August hasn’t been a really great reading month in the way of “amount of books” I’ve been able to knock out so far, but it’s been really great in “quality of books” I’ve read so far! Spinning Silver was such a beautiful book and though I have maybe one little caveat, it fully deserves the five-star rating I’m happy to give.
First, if you just want to get down to business by buying a copy and calling it a day, scroll all the way down to get to links to all the books mentioned.
Next, here are the basics without spoilers:
The story takes place in Russia, which we’re not quite aware of right away, and during an unknown time period. Russia is still ruled by a tsar and tsarina, so that at least puts us in Russia before 1917 (and really, long before 1864 because the tsar within the story is not Nikolai II who became tsar that year). It takes a few chapters to let the reader get situated – and I’m completely fine with that.
Miryem is our main female protagonist. She is the daughter and granddaughter of Jewish moneylenders who lend money to those who need it. Her granddfather is a very successful moneylender and lives in a neighboring city, while her father is a bit of a “pushover” (for lack of a better term) and because of this, their family has fallen into very hard times. Miryem takes it upon herself to collect debts since her father doesn’t have the heart to demand what is by rights his.
Miryem becomes very successful in her moneylending, and before we realize it, she’s essentially taken over the family business. She’s great with numbers and when those who owe money have none to give, she accepts tradable goods that she then takes to the city and turns for a larger profit. Business is good, life is getting better.
Enter the Staryk. [Let me take a moment to add here that when I read the name, I immediately thought of the Starks in Game of Thrones. Then, when I read the description of the Staryk, my brain immediately associated them to be basically the same as White Walkers. So, there you go. You’re welcome.]
Each year it has been getting colder and colder. Families struggle to stay warm and to keep food on their tables. This seems to be indirectly blamed on the Staryk, a terrible wintery people who wander the woods nearby and travel along the Staryk road, an icy road that leads out of the woods and close to the main traveling road. Everyone knows not to go into lands that are claimed by the Staryk, not to walk too close to the Staryk road, and to probably stay indoors when night falls, to be safe. The Staryk love gold and raid houses to steal it, though often this is limited to wealthy individuals who have gold to be stolen.
One evening, as Miryem travels from the city back to her home, she makes a mistake by jokingly stating that she can “change silver to gold,” referencing her keen ability to make really good trade deals. Unfortunately for her, the Staryk king hears this (because, magic), finds her, and demands she change silver to gold within a limited time, an action she will have to complete three times, with each demand more difficult than the next.
If she makes it? The Staryk king will make her his queen (yikes!). If she doesn’t? Probably death, basically.
I really, really loved this book for a handful of reasons. I am not one to enjoy the cold, personally, but I love reading about it. I think with the heat of summer this year, I didn’t mind reading about characters half freezing to death. Just saying. [They didn’t actually freeze to death, in case you were wondering.]
I loved the multiple points-of-view that caught me by surprise the first time it happened, and then just made me happy all the times after that. Miryem is the main narrator, but about 70 pages in, with no warning other than a little “next scene” spindle symbol, another character’s perspective is introduced. And like clockwork, every 50-70 pages or so, another new perspective jumps in. They’re never perspectives from characters we haven’t already met, but because these switches aren’t labeled, it takes the reader a minute to figure out, “Hey wait a second! That’s so-and-so!” I personally loved that.
The other part about this book I loved was the Russian storytelling aspect. It felt like The Bear and the Nightingale (Katherine Arden) but so much better. I enjoyed The Bear and the Nightingale but this book made it seem so much less good than what I had remembered. So, I’m glad I read the other one first, otherwise I think I would’ve been disappointed that it didn’t match up to the expectations Spinning Silver has now set.
This book has been described as a loose retelling of Rumplestiltskin, but I am here to say it is a very loose retelling. Of the things that are similar, there’s a name issue (the Staryk will never tell his name), someone can turn something that is not gold (in this case, silver) into gold, and that someone is demanded to change large qualities of that something into gold in an impossible amount of time. That’s it as far as I can tell, though there might be more subtle similarities that I didn’t catch on to. For me, the bulk of the story was very original.
SPOILERS AHEAD! Skip over this part if you don’t want the last bit spoiled for you!
I only had one real caveat with the story, and it’s in regard to the romantic aspect. Ultimately, Miryem makes the impossible possible by changing a large amount of silver into gold and thus the Staryk king carries her off to be his wife in his kingdom. All of that doesn’t go over so well – it’s a marriage riddled with problems … he’s immortal, impersonal, frustrating and difficult, cold (literally and figuratively), and she’s … not. It’s a marriage only in name and nothing else.
So there was a point where I felt that Naomi Novik could’ve done a better job at showing how, over time (as we would expect), the Staryk king warms up (just figuratively) to Miryem and Miryem warms up to him. I expected the whole “I shouldn’t fall in love with him because he took me away from my family and forced me to marry him and change silver to gold for the rest of my life, but …” thing. But there wasn’t really any of that, which is so completely reasonable and very logical because “he took you away from your family and forced you to marry him and change silver to gold for the rest of your life.”
But then we get to the ending. And all of a sudden, the Staryk king is basically declaring his love (if it could be called that?) and asks Miryem’s parents’ permission to court her and then two weeks later they’re married.
So when did the falling in love stuff happen? Is this a marriage of convenience? I’m confused. I’m happy for them, but I’m confused.
All that to say, caveat included, Spinning Silver was still such a wonderful book. It was a bit atmospheric and spun a captivating tale of a girl with intelligence and perseverance who beat all the odds and came out on top (with the help of her family and friends).
If you’d like to snag a copy, unfortunately you’re looking at nearly full price for a lovely hardback, but I still recommend going here to get a copy (unless you live near an awesome Indie bookstore, so then go there)!
Other books by Naomi Novik:
- Uprooted (a standalone) that you can get here (starting at $9 with free shipping).
- The Temeraire Series, the first of which you can get here (starting around $3.50 with free shipping).
If you’re interested in The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, you can snag that one here (also starting around $3.50 with free shipping).
Until next time, happy reading, bookworms!