Book Review: “Spinning Silver” — Rumplestiltskin, Reimagined

This is a winning book, conveying a strangely believable fantasy about three strong young women in a world not that far removed from our own.

Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik. Del Ray, $28, 480 pp.

By Clea Simon

Eastern European folklore has long been mined by writers, inspiring authors as diverse as Isaac Bashevis Singer and Helen Oyeyemi. These tales – the artful gleanings of survival-conscious Jews and other minorities – have remained relevant to generations removed from the shtetl. In the hands of fantasy author Naomi Novik, they acquire another dimension still; she looks at these traditional societies, Jewish or gentile, by way of a contemporary sensibility, with a gloss of magic thrown in. As imagined in Spinning Silver, Novik’s comprehensive re-telling of the Rumplestiltskin story, her characters deal with obstacles as deadly as poverty and anti-Semitism and as sharp as hunger and the biting cold.

The roots of this work are apparent in its language, its metaphors speaking of an older, primarily rural world. “You can’t suck blood from a stone,” a character complains, while another notes, “I walked home pleased as a cat.” The phrasings are colloquial, but slightly archaic: “My heart was glad as birds.” Such lines give the book the lyricism of a homey fable while anchoring it in Yiddish, or at least Eastern European, culture.

In Novik’s books, this historic verisimilitude coexists with the magic. The author’s first novels, the Temeraire series, re-imagined the Napoleonic wars, only in a world with dragons, which could be utilized by both sides as a kind of sentient air force. That Hugo Award-winning series, optioned by Peter Jackson for film, worked because it was so soundly rooted. Not only did Novik know her military history (she owns to being a fan of Patrick O’Brian), she created fully realized and distinctive dragon characters and kept scrupulously to her own imagined rules.

In time, however, even the great Temeraire himself, a Chinese dragon recruited by the British, had begun to tire. After the ninth book, Novik left her mystical martial beasts behind to mine her own family’s background for Polish, Lithuanian, and Russian folklore. The result was 2015’s Uprooted, which won her a Nebula Award from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and praise from groundbreaking utopian science fiction author Ursula LeGuin. That the sorcerer at the center of Uprooted is called “the dragon” might be a nod to her earlier success, but the book itself marked a radical departure. A feminist, environmentalist take on Beauty and the Beast, the book was an endearing, funny, sexy, and smart revelation. It reads like a fairy tale for adults, the kind of book that constantly surprises, even as it leaves you with the feeling that you’ve known this story all your life.

Spinning Silver is a more ambitious volume than its predecessor. While Uprooted kept one point of view throughout, Spinning Silver employs six, although the three female protagonists — the Jewish money-lender Miryem, her gentile servant Wanda, and Irina, a duke’s daughter — predominate. The narrative is also thematically more complicated. While Uprooted certainly pushed beyond its fairy tale source — and beyond the conventional romance at its heart –- the story stuck with one theme, the need to embrace the complexity of the world, to see beyond mere Manichaeism. Spinning Silver embodies that concept more fully, weighing multiple issues of loyalty and trust, anger and generosity. While sympathy and understanding are cultivated for characters initially presented as evil.

The nearly 500-page novel centers on the three young women. Miryem, Wanda, and Irina. Each embodies a part of the original Rumplestiltskin story but, in Novik’s version, each female also grapples against societal strictures. In Miryem’s case, her father is the local money lender. But he is too soft-hearted for the job and so, when her mother sickens as the cold of a magical winter sets in, Miryem takes on what is seen as a man’s job, hardening her heart to collect on debts owed. “I found something bitter inside myself, something of that winter blown into my heart,” she says. She becomes so good at it — and so good at calculating how far she can push her gentile neighbors in a land where pogroms are still a danger — that she becomes known as the girl who can turn silver into gold, a manifestation of the miller’s daughter in Rumplestiltskin. Her calculations see only so far, however: When she takes in her own golden-haired protégé, Wanda, an illiterate peasant whose services will repay her own drunken father’s debt, she does not see that she is also offering this other young woman a way out of a dead-end life — turning her straw into gold, in another manifestation of the original heroine. And, although both are initially beneath the notice of Irina, their lives will intersect, once the duke’s daughter is married off to the handsome but heartless tsar Mirnatius, again like the heroine of the original tale. Bound together by the elementary power of transformation and its promises, the trio discovers that it must work together to survive.

The magic of the original yarn weaves through this book via several threads that are distinctively Novik-ian. First, there is the Staryk, a fairy ice creature whose lust for gold is incited by Miryem’s fame. Then there is a fire demon, whose evil influence may just balance out the Staryk’s. Throughout there are also references to age-old tropes, from the power of names to the rule of ‘three,’ all of which draw on the fairy-tale logic of the book. At times, though, these inventions can strain the illusion. The Staryk’s ice kingdom, for example, may be a beautiful concept, but it is never as fully visualized as the more earthly settings.

Spinning Silver has other flaws as well. On occasion, the multiplicity of first-person voices can be confusing, especially when the lesser male characters, such as Mirnatius or Wanda’s youngest brother, chime in. And while the basic narrative remains clear, none of the other voices are as compelling as Miryem’s and Wanda’s, leaving one with the sense that these two women are the closest to Novik’s ancestral tales — and her heart. Those quibbles aside, this is a winning book, conveying a strangely believable fantasy about three strong young women in a world not that far removed from our own.

A former journalist, Clea Simon is the author of three nonfiction books and 25 mysteries. A contributor to such publications as the Boston Globe, New York Times, and San Francisco Chronicle, she lives in Somerville with her husband, Jon Garelick. She can be reached here and on @Clea_Simon.

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