Book Review: Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik
It’s hard to do better than Naomi Novik when you want a good historical fantasy.
Spinning Silver, her latest offering, is a riff on Rumpelstiltskin set in medieval Russia. Miryem, the daughter of a Jewish moneylender, takes up her father’s trade and finds she’s shrewd enough to turn pennies into silver and silver into gold. Her success attracts the attention of the Staryk King, the manifestation of Russian winter. He wants her to make gold for him and eventually forces her into being his bride. From there, the story’s stakes rise significantly, as Miryem must find a way to escape the Staryk and prevent his deadly chill from covering the land while a second supernatural force seeks to consume it.
Novik goes lighter on the history here than she did in her Napoleonic-era Temeraire series, but Spinning Silver is still threaded with authentic details. The prejudice Miryem and her family experience feels particularly real—and relevant. I also liked that Miryem and the other two female leads aren’t beauties (a common trope in fantasy). Instead, they’re resourceful and brave, facing down men and demons alike. Two of the three villains become multi-faceted as well, and the quick-paced plot believably pulls the characters into alliances and then sets them at odds.
I’m less high on the rotating first-person point of view. Novik does a good job of letting you know which character is narrating at the beginning of each scene, and she varies the voices enough to make them distinctive, but this technique always feels a bit like an oral history to me. I think third-person would have worked just as well, if not better. I also saw some family resemblances to Uprooted, Novik’s other standalone fantasy—the environment as an adversary, bad guys who turn out to be not so bad and help the protagonist defeat the real villain, etc.
But I loved Spinning Silver anyway. If you like historical fantasy, you probably will too. Novik is one of the best in the business.
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