Thursday 8 August 2019

#CBR11 Book 63: "Spinning Silver" by Naomi Novik

Page count: 480 pages
Audio book length: 17 hrs 56 mins
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Listicle (on a bunch of best of 2018 lists, including NPR, Bustle and Bookbub).

Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of Jewish moneylenders, but her father is a dreadful one, who doesn't have the heart to actually claim back the debts that the villagers owe, even when his daughter is starving and the long, cold winters are making his wife sicker and sicker. Miryem refuses to see her mother die due to her father's weakness, hardens her heart and takes over her father's duties. Unlike him, she refuses to listen to excuses and starts forcing people to pay back some of what they owe. If they can't contribute coin, she'll take goods.

Wanda is the daughter and eldest child of a violent, drunken farmer who borrowed money from the moneylender when his wife was sick, but drank most of the money away, so she died. Now he abuses Wanda and her two brothers, who barely have enough to survive on, since what the tax collectors don't take away, their father spends on drink. When Miryem comes calling to collect on the debt, she decides Wanda will come work in her parents house as a servant, a maid of all work, and will gradually pay off the debt that way. Neither Mireym, nor Wanda's father realise how happy Wanda is about this change in her circumstances. Wanda is away from her father's violent presence for much of the day, she gets more to eat (even if she sometimes has to steal bread meant for the chickens), her father can't marry her off to anyone (as then no one will be paying off the debt) and gradually, she steps in as an assistant to Miryem, and slowly learns the intricacies of the numbers in her ledger.

Because Miryem is ruthlessly efficient, she manages to start reclaiming her mother's dowry. A savvy businesswoman, she sells everything her family can't directly use, making a profit, so that soon her family has gone from abject poverty to modest wealth again. Her grandfather is immensely proud of her, and lends her silver for more loans, which she is able to return to him as gold. Getting a reputation as someone who can start with silver and end up with gold is dangerous, though. Miryem finds herself challenged by the Staryk, the cold creatures who haunt the woods and terrorise people in the winter. The first time he brings her a small pouch of six silver coins to be returned as gold. If Miryem succeeds, she will be rewarded, if she fails, she will be turned to ice. Miryem takes the coins to a young jeweller in the city where her grandfather lives. He turns the magic silver into a ring, which they sell to the local duke, and not only do they manage to get the six gold coins the Staryk demands, but they both make a profit.

The second time, the Staryk lord comes, he demands sixty silver coins transformed and claims it is the second of three tests. Miryem is bold enough to ask what her reward will be if she actually succeeds, and is shocked to discover that should that come to pass, the Staryk lord making the demands will take her as his wife. She doesn't really want that (he's terrifying), but neither does she want to die. She goes back to the jeweller, who makes a beautiful necklace, which he also presents to the duke. The duke, who has never really thought he'd be able to make an especially good match for his plain daughter Irina, discovers that with the Staryk silver ring and necklace, she may not be beautiful, but she's striking and mesmerising in a way he can clearly capitalise on. He demands a silver crown from the jeweller, and since the third time the Staryk lord arrives, he wants 600 silver coins turned to gold, Miryem has no problem providing enough metal. As soon as she has presented the gold the Staryk lord (who turns out to be the king of his people), she is whisked away to his kingdom, and her family in the human world are left with only vague memories of her.

The jeweller makes a crown fit for a queen which the duke gifts to Irina, and when the tsar comes to visit, it is decided that he will take Irina as his bride. Sadly, Irina discovers that the reason the tsar was so ready and willing to agree to marry a minor duke's unremarkable daughter has nothing to do with her magical silver jewelry, but rather her distant Staryk ancestry. The tsar is possessed by a demon, who craves the Staryk cold within her. He intends to murder Irina and eat her life force. Luckily for Irina, she discovers that wearing her silver, she can slip through mirrors into the cold, snow covered Staryk kingdom, hiding away from the demon when he comes every night. In the daytime, her husband is human, and she puts up a very credible show of them being wildly infatuated, while trying desperately to figure out a way she can tempt the demon with something else, so she, or those she loves, don't become victims of the demon instead.

Irina is not the only one who ends up with an undesirable husband. Miryem is taken to the centre of the Staryk lands, and it turns out that while she could metaphorically turn silver into gold in the 'sunlit lands' because she was a clever negotiator and drove a good bargain, in the Staryk kingdom, she can literally turn silver into gold with a touch. This makes her an important asset to the Staryk king, who clearly resents the fact that she succeeded with his three impossible tasks in the first place, and ended up as his wife. They barely interact, except every evening, when Miryem gets to ask him three questions.

As the story progresses, Irina, Miryem and Wanda's stories become even more intertwined than in the beginning. Miryem needs to stop the Staryk king from covering the human world in pretty much eternal winter, and try to find a way to get back to her parents. Wanda and her brothers end up orphaned after a truly horrible accident and need to find a way to survive. Irina needs to figure out how to save her spoiled, indifferent husband and the kingdom she now feels responsible for from the ravages of the demon.

This is the follow-up to Novik's Uprooted, which while it felt like it should be, wasn't actually a retelling of any fairy tale. In Spinning Silver, however, Novik takes on the fairy tale of Rumplestiltskin, but mainly by using many different elements of the old tale in a completely new way in this novel. It's not straw being turned into gold, but silver. In the story, the desperate young woman forced by the king to spin the straw, pays the little imp first with a necklace and then with a ring, and finally, she's forced to bargain her firstborn child to succeed in her impossible tasks. The Staryk silver that Miryem is asked to transform as her initial tests, are turned into a ring, a necklace and a stately crown. She is later set an even bigger, seemingly impossible task, involving her new-found magical powers, but succeeds through her own cleverness. There are marriages (to an otherworldly king and a tsar) because of magical interference, and I was surprised and delighted that there was even callbacks to the promise of a firstborn child as the story progressed. The danger of revealing your true name to someone, and how it can grant others terrible power over you is a factor, as it is in so many faerie stories. There are also some elements of the Hades and Persephone myth (always a good one) in the second half of the book.

I found it interesting, that while female friendship is so central to the story in Uprooted, this book, which can be said to have three different female protagonists have all three struggling alone, without much support from others of their sex at all. Miryem loves her mother, but has no female friends. Wanda lost her mother to childbirth, and while she is given a job by Miryem, they never become close - it is entirely an employer/employee relationship. Irina also lost a mother to childbirth, and is only really close to the nurse who raised her, Magreta. The three women's stories weave into each other more tightly as the story progresses, but even towards the end, they each seem to stand alone, just helping each other a bit to achieve the same end goals.

While I liked this book a lot, and think it's probably structured better than Uprooted, overall (there were no sections that felt like they dragged unnecessarily, like I remember from the previous book), there was one thing that was annoying, and rather distracting, throughout the book.  The point of view changes suddenly from one character to the other, without any warning for the reader. It can take a while to realise who you are reading about when you get to a new section. I listened to the book in audio, but because all of these women have vaguely Eastern European accents, there wasn't a lot of differentiation there either. This book, which in total has six different points of view (Miryem, Wanda, Irina, Wanda's younger brother, Irina's nurse Magreta and, only once, the tsar), may have been better served by multiple narrators, so it would be clear when the voices changed which character's section you were moving into.

I also thought that the ending was a bit rushed, and would not have complained if there was a bit more romance throughout the story. Being married off to a supercilious winter king who seems to loathe you for your humanity because of a strange magical bargain seems like the ultimate enemies to lovers story, doesn't it? I never got beyond the first of Novik's Temeraire books, despite my general fondness for dragons. Now, I hope Novik keeps writing fairy tellings or her own original folklore interpretations for many years to come.

Judging a book by its cover: The cover design is in the same style as Uprooted, but with much cooler colours (since so much of this is set in winter) and because silver plays such an important part in the story. The central image is clearly Miryem, using her magical powers to turn silver into gold. There's also one of the Staryk pouches of coins, the haughty face of the Staryk king and a rain of gold coins, all central elements of the book.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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