Book review: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, a fairytale of women driving hard bargains

In Spinning Silver, a girl finds herself embroiled in an increasingly high-stakes money laundering scheme when her reputation for turning silver into gold was interpreted literally by the Staryk, a gold-obsessed race of wintry beings.
In Spinning Silver, a girl finds herself embroiled in an increasingly high-stakes money laundering scheme when her reputation for turning silver into gold was interpreted literally by the Staryk, a gold-obsessed race of wintry beings.PHOTO: DEL REY

FICTION

SPINNING SILVER

By Naomi Novik

Del Rey/ Paperback/ 466 pages/ $32.05/ Books Kinokuniya

4 stars

In the tale of Rumpelstiltskin, a girl must spin straw into gold. Writer Naomi Novik pulls off this figurative sleight-of-hand, finding the magic in the prosaic - financial loans, risk investment and contract law - and spinning it into a captivating story.

While it does not quite match up to its spectacular predecessor Uprooted, an ecological fairytale set on the edge of a perilous wood, it is enthralling in its own way.

Novik has an enormous talent for writing complex, competent heroines who go beyond the archetypes of "strong" or "feisty" and are impressively good at what they do.

In the case of Spinning Silver's Miryem, it is moneylending. Although it runs in her Jewish family, her father is so terrible at collecting debts that they live in poverty.

With her mother on her sickbed, Miryem takes it upon herself to collect what her family is owed. She proves so good at this merciless trade that she quickly establishes herself as a hated but necessary economic force in her village.

Soon, her reputation for turning silver into gold is interpreted literally by the Staryk, an otherworldly, dangerous race of wintry beings who are obsessed with gold.

She finds herself embroiled in an increasingly high-stakes money laundering scheme, converting escalating amounts of the Staryk king's silver into gold. If she fails to do so by his deadline, he will kill her; if she succeeds, he will take her away to his icy kingdom as his queen. Neither is an especially appealing option, but the word of a Staryk, once given, cannot be broken.

Novik takes the concept of debt - the bargains and contracts that underpin so many fairytales - and fleshes out how it informs so much of human interaction. Is there is no such thing as a free lunch? How does one quantify kindness?

 

The story does not belong just to Miryem. As Novik draws the reader along, she begins masterfully to weave other perspectives into the web. Among them are Wanda, a peasant girl given in bondage to Miryem to pay off a debt by her drunken, abusive father, and Irina, the meek daughter of a lord who plots to marry her to the young tsar.

But the tsar has a dangerous secret, and it is Irina who grows the most over the course of the novel, as she must use all her wiles to survive her marriage - perhaps even save it.

Novik's story is a paean to women who will not settle for less. Over and over again, her heroines are given the choice to compromise - to be content with their lot, to keep their heads down for fear of trouble, or to save themselves when they could save others. Instead, they choose to drive a hard bargain.

If you liked this, read: The Bear And The Nightingale by Katherine Arden (Ebury, 2017, $18.95, Books Kinokuniya), a mediaeval fantasy inspired by Russian folklore. Vasilisa, a lord's daughter, forms an alliance with the frost demon Morozko to protect her people from an ancient evil rising in the woods.