Spinning Silver

by Naomi Novik

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Publisher: Del Rey
Copyright: 2018
ISBN: 0-399-18100-8
Format: Kindle
Pages: 465

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Miryem is the daughter of the village moneylender and the granddaughter (via her mother) of a well-respected moneylender in the city. Her grandfather is good at his job. Her father is not. He's always willing to loan the money out, but collecting it is another matter, and the village knows that and takes advantage of it. Each year is harder than the one before, in part because they have less and less money and in part because the winter is getting harsher and colder. When Miryem's mother falls ill, that's the last straw: she takes her father's ledger and goes to collect the money her family is rightfully owed.

Rather to her surprise, she's good at the job in all the ways her father is not. Daring born of desperation turns into persistent, cold anger at the way her family had been taken advantage of. She's good with numbers, has an eye for investments, and is willing to be firm and harden her heart where her father was not. Her success leads to good food, a warmer home, and her mother's recovery. It also leads to the attention of the Staryk.

The Staryk are the elves of Novik's world. They claim everything white in the forest, travel their own mysterious ice road, and raid villages when they choose. And, one night, one of the Staryk comes to Miryem's house and leaves a small bag of Staryk silver coins, challenging her to turn them into the gold the Staryk value so highly.

This is just the start of Spinning Silver, and Miryem is only one of a broadening cast. She demands the service of Wanda and her younger brother as payment for their father's debt, to the delight (hidden from Miryem) of them both since this provides a way to escape their abusive father. The Staryk silver becomes jewelry with surprising magical powers, which Miryem sells to the local duke for his daughter. The duke's daughter, in turn, draws the attention of the czar, who she met as a child when she found him torturing squirrels. And Miryem finds herself caught up in the world of the Staryk, which works according to rules that she can barely understand and may be a trap that she cannot escape.

Novik makes a risky technical choice in this book and pulls it off beautifully: the entirety of Spinning Silver is written in first person with frequently shifting narrators that are not signaled outside of the text. I think there were five different narrators in total, and I may be forgetting some. Despite that, I was never confused for more than a paragraph about who was speaking due to Novik's command of the differing voices. Novik uses this to great effect to show the inner emotions and motivations of the characters without resorting to the distancing effect of wandering third-person.

That's important for this novel because these characters are not emotionally forthcoming. They can't be. Each of them is operating under sharp constraints that make too much emotion unsafe: Wanda and her brother are abused, the Duke's daughter is valuable primarily as a political pawn and later is juggling the frightening attention of the czar, and Miryem is carefully preserving an icy core of anger against her parents' ineffectual empathy and is trying to navigate the perilous and trap-filled world of the Staryk. The caution and occasional coldness of the characters does require the reader do some work to extrapolate emotions, but I thought the overall effect worked.

Miryem's family is, of course, Jewish. The nature of village interactions with moneylenders make that obvious before the book explicitly states it. I thought Novik built some interesting contrasts between Miryem's navigation of the surrounding anti-Semitism and her navigation of the rules of the Staryk, which start off as far more alien than village life but become more systematic and comprehensible than the pervasive anti-Semitism as Miryem learns more. But I was particularly happy that Novik includes the good as well as the bad of Jewish culture among unforgiving neighbors: a powerful sense of family, household religious practices, Jewish weddings, and a cautious but very deep warmth that provides the emotional core for the last part of the book.

Novik also pulls off a rare feat in the plot structure by transforming most of the apparent villains into sympathetic characters and, unlike The Song of Ice and Fire, does this without making everyone awful. The Staryk, the duke, and even the czar are obvious villains on first appearances, but in each case the truth is more complicated and more interesting. The plot of Spinning Silver is satisfyingly complex and ever-changing, with just the right eventual payoffs for being a good (but cautious and smart!) person.

There were places when Spinning Silver got a bit bleak, such as when the story lingered a bit too long on Miryem trying and failing to navigate the Staryk world while getting herself in deeper and deeper, but her core of righteous anger and the protagonists' careful use of all the leverage that they have carried me through. The ending is entirely satisfying and well worth the journey. Recommended.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2019-08-18

Last modified and spun 2019-08-19