This is a story about bargains and debts. The threaded elements of Rumpelstiltskin are told thrice over. Spinning Silver follows the intertwined stories of three daughters. All flawed, not traditionally beautiful, and each finding their own strengths throughout the tale. Each has their life bargained away, yet they fight for their values and beliefs, don't give in to the patriarchy, and make their new lives better for it.
The main character is Miryem, a Jew in Lithvas, a fictional country in late medieval Europe. Her father is a money-lender, a traditional occupation for Jews, but he's not very good at it. After a hard winter and mother sick, young Miryem takes it upon herself to go out door to door and collect debts. She soon gains a reputation for turning silver into gold. But there is a fae-like race, the Staryk, who come with winter and are always seeking gold. The winter-king hears of her boast and wants her gifts for his own. He gives her Staryk silver to change into gold.
You can see the heart of the tale is definitely Rumpelstiltskin, but Novik truly makes it unique in the telling. I really enjoyed all the different character viewpoints and aspects. There were also some nice twists in the character motivations of the villains. What starts out as a good vs evil isn't so clear in the end.
I loved the magic elements. There is a strong fire vs ice theme throughout. Fire and ice, silver and gold. There is no name guessing like the original fairy tale, but there is an emphasis on the importance of names.
Spinning Silver started out as a short story, included in The Starlit Wood anthology. I re-read the short story before beginning the novel. The short only follows Miryem, and ends when she fulfills her bargain to the winter-king. The novel introduces more viewpoints, and continues the tale much further. I would definitely recommend just going straight for the novel. The text of the short story is included almost word for word as it is woven in, just expanded on in much more depth.
I can't really comment on the accuracy of the Jewish community, as my main knowledge is from Fiddlers on the Roof. The book doesn't go into a lot of depth on their religion/culture.
If you don't like first person point of view, or are easily confused by multiple point of view characters, then this book isn't for you. There are the three main characters, and a couple of side characters, that get viewpoints, and all in first person. It could definitely be disconcerting to some. I did find that I could identify who's head we were in within a few lines. Each character voice was different enough and quite well written.
Though this is marketed for adults, I believe the content is also appropriate for young adults. It is a longer book, 466 pages, so that may turn off some. The plot never dragged, it held my attention the whole way and was hard to put down. I definitely recommend this not just for fans of Rumpelstiltskin, but for any who enjoy a satisfying fantasy with strong female lead characters.
"...magic that came only when you made some larger version of yourself with words and promises, and then stepped inside and somehow grew to fill it."
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Mirror, Mirror was an interesting take on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Gregory Maguire placed the story in a historical setting, Montefiore (in Tuscany, Italy) in the 16th century. It's historical fiction with a dash of magic. Elizabeth will be delving deeper into that historical foundation on our Enchanted Garden blog.
Like the original tale, we still have the elements of a step-mother type figure, a mirror, dwarves, and the attacks of hunter, comb, corset, and apple, and ending with a glass coffin and a kiss. This is definitely a Snow White tale. Where it differs is how it portrays those different elements.
There are a lot of politics in the early part of the book. The step-mother figure is Lucrezia Borgia, a historical figure known for her beauty and vengeance. She and her brother are responsible for sending off Bianca's (Snow White) father on a quest to find a rumored branch of the Tree of Knowledge with its three remaining fruits.
I felt the main themes were innocence versus sin. Even the magic had a religious undertone. You have the innocent Bianca, who goes away just as she is approaching maturity, retaining her innocence, and then sleeping through many of her years of change. She is away from the world and the carnal influences of the Borgias and the commoners of the village. Whereas Lucrezia is enjoying her time lording over the villa while the master is away. She does what she wants, and banishes or punishes anyone who gets in her way.
I had a hard time getting into the book with all the politics and the uncomfortable vulgar talk (and actions) of the commoners and Borgias. I thought the second half was better, once Bianca was with the dwarves, and I could see how other Snow White story elements came into play. But even then, I was analyzing it as the fairy tale, and not able to escape into the story and enjoy it on its own merit.
This was my first introduction to his work. He definitely has a way with description, as I have never seen the same metaphors or similes used. Here is one passage that stuck with me:
"One day the moon had swaggered up to the sun and punched it in the eye, and the world had gone midnight at midday. Birds had lost their bearing and smashed against the walls of the kitchen garden, and Primavera had made a stew of them."
You would probably enjoy this book if you are already a fan of Gregory Maguire's writing. Or if you enjoy books rich with history and politics. It did bring the tale more into this world.
Come back later this week, and join us at the Enchanted Garden to follow our discussion of Mirror, Mirror.