Name: Spinning Silver
Author: Naomi Novik
Number of Pages: 466 (Hardback)
Published: July 12th 2018 by Macmillan
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 – from Goodreads
Spinning Silver is a wonderful mix of fairytale, folklore and fantasy, combined with magic and mystery, with an addition of some wonderfully strong lead characters, whose lives become entwined throughout the course of the story.
It’s a sign how good the writing is – I started this sitting outside during the recent heat wave, yet as winter approached Miryem’s door in an ominous trail of strangely-shaped foot/hoof/claw prints, the snow fell, the ice formed, the wind howled and I was there. Searing heat? No, I was in Miryem’s cabin, feeling the chill and wondering what on earth was out there and whether Miryem would be a match for it.
The main characters are three women from very different backgrounds, let down by a supposed protector, or sent into situations not of their own choosing, yet strong and brave in their own way. They cannot rely on heroes, for there are few around, but nor do they strike me as people who would expect to, as instead they rely on themselves and each other to forge ahead in a hard world and face the challenges presented to them.
Miryem is the moneylender’s daughter. She despairs as her father fails to collect debts owed. When her mother becomes sick, Miryem hardens her heart and goes out to collect what is owed. She’s fiercely determined, spurred on by her mother’s deteriorating condition, which proves strong motivation.
A young woman, taking on a role that her own father couldn’t succeed at, Miryem finds herself more than equal to the task; she’s so good at it that despite her father’s misgivings, she makes her grandfather very proud, and he offers support. She also attracts the attention of something otherworldly, and alongside the scowls and ill-will of those she collects from, there’s the small matter of the Staryk lord, a winter king who threatens to turn her to ice if she fails to turn his silver into gold.
Despite the risk to her life, Miryem doesn’t cower before the king, and when she challenges him, he offers to make her his queen if she succeeds. This creates an interesting situation once Miryem looks set to complete the challenge. With the Staryk honour his promise? And what then?
I loved the dynamic between Miryem and the Staryk. I always read that initial type of conflict wondering whether dislike will turn to love in the end, and whether I even want it to.
I could hardly read fast enough to find out what would happen between the two of them.
I was almost tempted to flick through and find out how it would all be resolved (!), but managed to resist because I went into this book knowing very little about it, so each new twist, turn and revelation was a real joy, and I didn’t really want to spoil the ending, even though I really wanted to know.
Wanda finds her way to working for Miryem to pay off some of her father’s debts. Not exactly a great father, he borrowed money then drunk and gambled it away. Wanda’s mother died, leaving her and her brothers to deal with this drunkenness and beatings for the smallest thing.
When presented with an opportunity, Wanda makes plans and conceals the truth about receiving payment from Miryem, creating a small stash of coins for her and brothers in the hope they can escape to a better life at some time in the future.
Irina is the duke’s daughter. It’s clear she’s considered a burden because she’s not beautiful enough (!) to secure an advantageous marriage, which will mean expense for her father, who will have to offer a very tempting dowry. He schemes to marry her to the Tsar, but it isn’t only the magnificent jewellery forged in Staryk silver that catches his eye, and Irina ends up in a very dangerous situation through not fault of her own.
Her new husband has a dark secret, one that he cannot control, but Irina and her ice-magic jewellery may just be able to escape and outwit the demon that seeks to claim her.
These three different lives converge as the Staryk’s challenge sends Miryem off to satisfy his desire for gold and save her own life. I found the pacing slightly slow to begin with, never to the point that I considered putting the book down, but it was something I noticed at first.
Some of the imagery is just fantastic, the ice and mirrors and escape to another land is all magical. It’s really visual, and almost dreamlike at points. I was reluctant to set the book aside for the real world, even when I had things to do.
“So the fairy silver brought you a monster of fire for a husband, and me a monster of ice. We should put them in a room together and let them make us both widows.”
The story is told from various perspectives, and I wasn’t so keen on the viewpoints of some of the secondary characters towards the end of the story, I preferred the three main narratives. When the inevitable confrontation between fire and ice finally came, as you know it must with such observations as the one above, I really wished it had been told from one of the main viewpoints, but that’s a small detail in an otherwise great book.
The threads of these lives weave together as plots and schemes are forged, and alliances to set one against another culminate in an exciting conclusion. If you want something a little magical in your reading then I’d definitely give Spinning Silver a try. And how did things turn out with Miryem and her Staryk king? Well, you’ll have to read the book and find out for yourself.