I am part of a sci-fi/fantasy book club at my local library, and this book club is the perfect excuse to move books from my endless to-be-read pile to the top of my list. Spinning Silver, written by Naomi Novik and published in 2018, is one such novel that was on my radar for quite some time. I knew it was fantasy and that it was vaguely related to Rumpelstiltskin. When I finally picked it up in late 2019, I was eager to dive in. Warning: major book spoilers down below!
Spinning Silver is set in a late medieval to Early Modern Lithuanian village and centers around three main points of view. Miryem is from a Jewish family, and her father is the local moneylender. Miryem’s father is a kind man whose inability to collect money leaves his family destitute in the increasingly harsh, Eastern European winter. Tired of being taken advantage of, she steps into her father’s role and starts collecting on debts in the village.
Despite her father’s protestations and the disgruntlement of the townsfolk, Miryem excels at the role and begins to provide for her family. As she increases her wealth (that is, spinning silver into gold), she hardens her heart even more to the opinions and thoughts of others.
Wanda, a young woman in the same village, begins to work for Miryem to pay off the debts that her drunken father has accrued. Wanda is a quiet, stoic woman whose father drinks away his money and routinely hits Wanda and her two brothers. She is hungry for independence and begins to stockpile some of her excess pay from Miryem while becoming a valued member of Miryem’s family.
Irina, the daughter of a local noble, is painfully plain and a burden to the household. She is to be married off to hopefully lend prestige to her father and stepmother’s household, despite her wishes. (More on her a little later.)
In Miryem and Wanda’s village, the creeping, biting winter is a sign of the arriving Staryk. The Staryk are a race of magical, winter beings responsible for the winter ills of the village, and the Staryk world is often visible in the surrounding woods. When the Staryk king overhears Miryem talk about her ability to turn her silver into gold, he takes her up on the challenge and brings her increasingly large sums of magical silver to turn into valuable gold.
These visits from the Staryk king kickstart the plot as Miryem has the enchanted silver made into beautiful jewelry and sells it to the duke of her grandfather’s town, Irina’s father. These three pieces of jewelry become Irina’s dowry, and Irina is betrothed to Tsar Mirnatius, a young ruler with a burning secret. This Staryk silver has a peculiar effect on Irina, and it becomes the only way she can save herself from Mirnatius and take control of her own fate.
Miryem is taken by the Staryk king to his icy kingdom, forced to turn troves of silver into gold for mysterious purposes. The accidental death of Wanda’s father forces Wanda and her brothers to flee as they have their own encounters with magic in the eerie, snowy woods. The stories of these three women intertwine as they fight for agency, for family and for their homes in different ways.
Overall, I loved Spinning Silver was wonderful and right up my alley. I’m always a fan of fairytale retellings, historical fantasy and interesting female characters. However, some of the plotlines wrap up in quick and neat ways that sometimes feel unsatisfying. Miryem’s resolution with the Staryk king felt rushed, even if I liked the outcome. Miryem was the most fleshed-out character and Wanda had a satisfying arc, but Irina felt the most distant and separate of the three storylines. There were many threads running through the story, and sometimes it got caught up in trying to get all the parts aligned with one another. The chapters with a POV that was not Irina, Miryem or Wanda, although rare, were not as interesting or developed.
Nevertheless, I was thoroughly enjoyed Novik’s book. The frosty, snowy atmosphere really got me in the mood for the winter holidays, especially since my area isn’t known for nippy temperatures. The historical backdrop for the story isn’t distracting and provides enough detail to set up the kinds of lives each of the characters has. The strength of this book comes through in the characterization of Miryem, Wanda and Irina and the way the all set out to achieve each of their goals.
Miryem’s pride and stubbornness are extremely relatable, even when her pride becomes rashness. She has a need to prove herself, not just as a woman, but as a Jewish minority in a primarily Christian village. Miryem loves her family and strives to protect them from enemies, magical and human ones alike. Even the way Miryem handles the Staryk king is a show of her determination, tenacity, and resourcefulness.
Wanda’s quiet ambition and struggle to be recognized as someone worthy of respect is something that many can identify with. Her father’s cruelty drives a wedge between her and her brothers and relegates the household to poverty. Through adversity, she and her siblings learn to trust one another and become a family once again. Wanda’s connection with Miryem’s family helps her and her brothers find the kindness, love, and respect missing from their troubled home. Wanda can live the life she wants instead of subjecting herself to someone else’s whim.
Irina’s fight to save her life and occupy a space of power is a tense one as she outsmarts and bargains with the evil demon inhabiting her husband’s body. Even though this agency comes at a dangerous price and was not of her choosing, Irina uses her wiles to do what is best for herself, her family, and her people. Like the other two women, Irina is determined to take what no one will give her and make her life on her own terms.
Although Wanda, Irina, and Miryem share different experiences, they are determined to show their value to those around them. Novik’s wonderful writing style leaves you with thoughtful quotes that can resonate with anyone. If you need a book with believable female characters, creepy snow elves, and a chilly winter setting, Spinning Silver is for you.