The real story isn’t half as pretty as the one you’ve heard.
In the eyes of Miryam, the classic tale of Rumplestiltskin is actually about getting out of paying one’s debts by scapegoating the one you’ve borrowed from – as in league with the devil. She would know; she’s the daughter of the local moneylender and her family is the only Jewish one in the village. Her father, sadly, is an incredibly poor moneylender who has lent away his wife’s entire dowry without ever insisting on getting paid back by people who spit at his feet and won’t invite his family into their homes.
One winter, with her mother sick and the family going hungry, Miryam decides to take over her father’s accounts and with good business sense and a certain cold ruthlessness, she turns their fortunes around. She also acquires a reputation for being able to turn silver into gold and thus attracts the attention of the Staryk – a grim, otherworldly race of frost-like beings whose icy kingdom runs parallel to that of the human world. When the Staryk King challenges Miryam to change his silver to gold, a chain of events unfolds to determine the fate of both realms. And thus is the plot of Spinning Silver, the new fantastical novel by Naomi Novik who previously won the Nebula award for her ground breaking fantasy novel, Uprooted.
Taking place in the kingdom of Lithvas (obviously based on medieval Russia to the point of having a Tsar and Tsarina), Spinning Silver has a distinctly Slavic feel to both the human society it depicts and the flavor of the folklore inspiring it. Like the nameless King of the Staryk, the novel is both frightening and beautiful at once. Novik offers us multiple first person viewpoints; while Miryam is the central figure, others are soon entwined in her tale as well. They include: Wanda and her younger brothers, children of an abusive drunk who come to find work in Miryam’s home; Irina, daughter of a grand Duke, whose father schemes to marry her to the Tsar and her old beloved nurse Magreta; and the Tsar himself who is in thrall to forces more powerful and terrifying than anyone knows. All become pawns entangled in a great game of chess between supernatural forces representing the very forces of fire and ice themselves. (There are some elements here that will seem familiar to fans of Game of Thrones, but rest assured Novik has given us a truly original version of her own.) And all of it takes place in a world ruled by very real political intrigue, economic forces, and the shadow of vicious anti-Semitism that constantly threatens Miryam’s family. Choices and sacrifices will be made. Alliances forged and broken within increasingly great battles. If all this sounds complicated – it is! The book is nearly 500 pages long, yet the story is so engrossing I literally found myself staying up until three in the morning to finish reading. And really can there be any greater commendation for a book than that?
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