Naomi Novik spins together elements of Slavic folklore, familiar tales and figures from fairy stories, historical elements of a historic eastern European setting, and her own splash of inventive fantasy to create a setting and a tale that at once feels both rich with the familiar and delightfully brand-new. Spinning Silver takes place in the fictional kingdom of Lithvas; a place where accurate historical details blend seamlessly with an understanding that at least some fairy-tales are based in truth.
As I began to read Spinning Silver, I had a very strong sense of deja vu which only intensified as the book continued. At first, I wondered if I'd read this novel before, and somehow forgotten that I had, but so many elements of the story were fresh to me, I very much doubted that was the case. Upon looking into the origins of this novel, however, the mystery of the familiarity of the book was resolved: Spinning Silver is an expansion and alteration of Naomi Novik's short story of the same title, which is in an anthology of fairy-tale retellings by various science-fiction and fantasy authors, The Starlit Wood (an anthology which I highly recommend). Many key elements and even entire passages of the novel come straight from this short story, although the novel has the space to develop more of the setting and the characters, and there are a few key differences in plot. I will discuss more of the similarities/differences between the short story and the novel as part of my discussion with Mary for the Enchanted Garden Book Club, as I would like to avoid too many spoilers here in my review.
The story begins with the primary protagonist, Miryem, relaying a version of the Rumpelstiltskin tale, found in Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's collection of fairy tales (Grimm 55). However, rather than focusing on what is typically the most recognizable part of the tale--and is the basis for the tale's classification within the Aarne-Thompson-Uther fairy tale index (the tale is ATU 500, "The Name of the Supernatural Helper")--Miryem tells a version of the tale where the focus is on how the miller's daughter cheats her debt to a moneylender. Miryem, you see, is a moneylender's daughter herself, and she has very much seen how her kind-hearted father has been cheated. As Novik weaves the story, Spinning Silver is a tale about debt, bargains, and obligations. Her tale reinforces the ideas that fulfilling promises and honoring debts lends a person power, whereas the benefits of cheating those same promises and debts are fleeting and empty.
One of the things I loved about Spinning Silver is the way that Novik draws on all sorts of folklore. Allusions to many familiar tales and fairy-tale elements are present throughout the book: Baba Yaga is referenced, as is the magical power of a true name; there is a tree imbued with all the magic of a mother's love and sacrifice; Novik's unique magical race, the Staryk, are very clearly inspired by the fey creatures of other tales; there's hardly a chapter that goes by without some fresh reference that steeps the story in fairy and in folklore.
She drew me to a chair in the corner, and she did lay her hands on my head. She was slow and gentle with the tangles, too, as she usually wasn't, and she sang very softly over my hair, the song I had always loved as a child, the clever girl escaping from Baba Yaga's house in the woods.
There is even reference to a more modern fairy story, as Miryem describes the hardening of her heart that leads her to become a successful moneylender in a way reminiscent of the sliver of mirror which freezes Kai's heart in Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen. Just as Kai's frozen heart could only see what was bad and ugly in others, so has Miryem's experience of the mistreatment her family has received from their neighbors soured her outlook and hardened her to ice.
The story of Spinning Silver is told in the first-person, and at first the perspective is only that of Miryem, the moneylender's daughter. However, as the novel progresses, Novik gradually introduces other characters' perspectives. Although every perspective is expressed in the first-person and only context tells just whose perspective the reader is following, Novik manages to make each voice distinct enough that it is not at all difficult to recognize a change in view and to identify whose point-of-view is now being expressed.
Overall, Spinning Silver is an excellent book which leans heavily into the folklore which inspires it. Although a familiarity with and love for fairy tales certainly isn't required in order to enjoy the book, if you are versed in traditional story enough to catch Novik's allusions, you will almost certainly love this retelling. While it is only loosely inspired by any single traditional fairy tale, it is thoroughly steeped in a fairy-tale atmosphere. The characters are well-developed and relatable, and each new perspective introduced adds to the depth of the story without making it too messy or convoluted to follow.
There is an element of romance to the novel, and it does touch on themes of religion, politics, bigotry, domestic violence, alcoholism, and arranged/forced marriage. If any of those things might be triggering for you, you may want to approach the book with care. While it is not explicit, and is suitable for young-adult/teenage readers, some elements may be triggering for some readers.
I very much recommend Spinning Silver, and look forward to reading more from Naomi Novik--especially her other standalone fairy tale-inspired book, Uprooted. A third standalone novel from Novik is due to be released this month (September 29, 2020), entitled A Deadly Education. Biased as I am towards all things folklore and fairy, I very much hope that this book, too, will be heavily influenced by the fairy tale tradition.