By: Naomi Novik
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication Date: July 10th, 2018
Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders… but her father isn’t a very good one. Free to lend and reluctant to collect, he has loaned out most of his wife’s dowry and left the family on the edge of poverty–until Miryem steps in. Hardening her heart against her fellow villagers’ pleas, she sets out to collect what is owed–and finds herself more than up to the task. When her grandfather loans her a pouch of silver pennies, she brings it back full of gold.
But having the reputation of being able to change silver to gold can be more trouble than it’s worth–especially when her fate becomes tangled with the cold creatures that haunt the wood, and whose king has learned of her reputation and wants to exploit it for reasons Miryem cannot understand.
I had seen Naomi Novik’s name all over my local public library when I was a kid, but never actually picked up one of her books until Uprooted–which I then promptly fell in love with. It’s still one of my favorite fairytale retellings, largely because of Novik’s originality and the quirkiness of her characters. So naturally, I had to order Spinning Silver (the special B&N signed copy, because yes I’m extra)–and it absolutely did not disappoint. Spinning Silver isn’t quite a sequel, but it’s definitely a companion novel to Uprooted. I read it this summer, but was in a place where it was snowing over Thanksgiving Break, and felt behooved to share this review with y’all.
I had some inkling of what I was getting into with this book, just because there was a hint of a sequel/companion novel at the end of Uprooted. But Spinning Silver was very different than what I had been expecting–and, even more than Uprooted, it was rich in an Eastern European history/mythology that I feel like I rarely see in novels. I couldn’t get enough of that or the varied cast of characters. I also loved how the story was loosely (LOOSELY) based on rumpelstiltskin, only with more girl power and (somewhat) less creepy men.
Miryem is the one who first caught my heart and kept me in the story. The granddaughter of a very successful moneylender and the daughter of a very bad one, she finally decides she’s had enough of poverty and begins calling in all of her father’s debts–and then quickly finds that she has a knack for making money. Adding to this cast of characters are Wanda, the large, stoic villager girl Miryem hires to help her (in exchange for her father’s debt), Irina, a duke’s daughter who indirectly benefits from Miryem’s ‘magic’, and all of the characters supporting them.
Much like in Uprooted, Miryem gets herself very unintentionally wrapped up with some otherworldly creatures. These are the Staryk, men of ice who have power over winter and crave gold. When word gets around that Miryem can ‘turn silver into gold’, she is challenged three times to do so by the king of the Staryk, and delivers three times (having a jeweler fashion his magical silver into incredible creations which are sold to Irina for gold). In exchange, she is given the very real power to turn silver to gold–as well as the title of Staryk Queen. In the meanwhile, those magical creations win Irina the hand of the tsar, who is unfortunately possessed by a fiery demon. (I’m going to be honest: if you had an issue with the love story in Uprooted, aka curmudgeony older man and younger woman, then you are going to have an issue with the love stories in Spinning Silver.)
There were two very distinct parts of the book: the beginning, where Miryem is busily going around making her money, and the second part, where Miryem and Irina are both wrestling with the realization that they’re married to strange, otherworldly beings who don’t necessarily have the best interests of humans at heart. I was somewhat confused and disappointed when the switch happened, because I was so enjoying the girl-boss aesthetic of part one, but then things began happening and I was hooked all over again. Miryem and Irina are both clever, sharp, powerful women who know their own worth and abilities, and I love them for it.
But what I also adored in this book was how it also pulled in some of the culture and folklore of Eastern European Jews, which I honestly haven’t seen before in fantasy. Miryem and her family are Jewish, which adds complexity to their narrative when you also understand why they’re all moneylenders and why that’s Miryem’s only option. Oppression and fear are mentioned, not ignored, but there’s also a rich, joyous celebration that happens in the book also. I also adored how Miryem’s pragmatism about debt and repayment puts her in a state of mind to understand the Staryk and their odd customs and ideas.
This is a book I could wax lyrical about for ages–but I should probably stop here. Basically, if you read Uprooted and loved it, or if you just love medieval Eastern Europe stories with amazing cast members and creepy mythology, this is absolutely for you. Here’s to hoping that Naomi Novik continues with the amazingness that is this not-quite-a-series.
Disclaimer: The synopsis and cover picture were pulled from the book’s Goodreads page. Neither belong to us.