Review: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

20 Books of Summer 2019: Book 1

I added Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver to my shelf the same time as Uprooted. Though both books are worthwhile, I don’t recommend reading them a few months apart (maybe not even a year apart). There’s plenty of rich foreshadowing in Spinning Silver, but when I predicted a key bit of the ending, it wasn’t based on anything from this book. There are a couple characters here that are strikingly similar to characters in Uprooted and it seemed like they were on the same trajectory. (They were.) This cheapens the ending in a way that’s hard to explain. For reasons I can’t get into without spoilers, I’d recommend Spinning Silver first if you plan to read both. If you plan to read one, Uprooted is the better book.

As the title suggests, the story riffs on Rumpelstiltskin tales. In a small town, the moneylender’s daughter, Miryem, is disgusted that her neighbors have pushed her family into poverty by not paying their debts. Her father is too soft and forgiving to make people pay, so she does it herself. When a drunkard can’t pay, she takes his daughter, Wanda, to work and settle the debt. Soon, Miryem has upgraded her family’s home and living situation, but their place in town is more tenuous because people don’t like her for holding them to account. When she brags about buying dresses for silver and selling them for gold, she’s overheard by a Staryk lord, an ice king, who gives her a chest of silver pieces to turn into gold. Once she’s done this three times, he takes her away to make gold for him. His name is never given, in keeping with the original Rumpelstiltskin stories.

This part of the book, when the story is being set up—living with the Staryks is a prerequisite for the novel’s chief conflict—is the best part. It’s written to be warm, magical, and mysterious, but while Miryem is changing the silver to gold, a third POV character is introduced: Irina. The three interlocking stories fit together in ways that promise to be interesting, but there are some pacing problems at the end when another bundle of POV characters appears. My least favorite chapters are narrated by side-characters in Irina’s story. Irina is less defined than either Miryem and Wanda, so giving parts of her story to other voices waters her down.

Much like Uprooted, there’s a large showdown at the climax, to which all characters’ plots build steadily. Where this book felt flatter to me, though, was that the villain’s defeat was straightforward. There’s nothing to equal the feelings of dread and horror evoked by the Wood. In Uprooted, it’s a genuine question whether or not the Wood can be defeated, but these villains definitely will. It’s just a matter of time and coincidence/magic.

All that said, Novik gets a lot of credit for balancing her three main voices. I enjoy when I can open the book to a random page and recognize a character’s voice within a sentence or two. I appreciate that she can build epic, wide-reaching conflicts into standalone novels. One of the reasons I stopped reading fantasy is that so many stories are bloated into trilogies and series. It’s not hard to image a lesser (greedier?) author adding 100 pages of side quests and splitting this book into a duology.

Overall: 3.8 There’s nothing egregiously wrong with it, and it’s fun for the summer, but it doesn’t have the same magic and edge as Uprooted.

2 thoughts on “Review: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik”

  1. I had a lot of the same likes/issues with Spinning Silver. And while I found it to be a beautiful and rich story, I think part of the reason I prefer Uprooted is that the tone of Uprooted is overall hopeful, while Spinning Silver isn’t. I also think Spinning Silver may be a book I would like more on a reread, as it was very different from what I was expecting the first time around. Anyway, great review! We’ll have to see what Novik comes up with next.

    1. That’s a good point on tone. Spinning Silver feels down, even when it’s clear that it’s marching toward a happy ending.

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