“Spinning Silver” is a Fairy Tale of the Highest Caliber

Naomi Novik’s Uprooted is a wonder of a fairy tale: it has a stirring Beauty-and-the-Beast love story, a rich and varied use of the dark forest motif, and an almost domestic focus on the ordinary in the lives of her characters, showing us their families and their chores and their fireplaces. This framework must have been certified somewhere, to be unimpeachably good at mining stories of epic scale for maximum humanity, because it works like a charm in Spinning Silver, and three times over, at that.

Here, though, instead of the forest, Novik turns to snow and ice for a tale that is as much about frost and its effects on rye yields as it is about marriages, magical bargains, and portals between worlds. With this approach, Spinning Silver is more than utterly magical; it is utterly matronly, deeply concerned with the women that much of fantasy forgets––mothers, grandmothers, maidservants, and peasant girls who don’t get to marry princes.

In fact, the book is so magical precisely because it is so mundane, returning to us as readers the domestic labor that so often gets stripped away when fairy tales are adapted to high fantasy: Rumpelstiltskin is about spinning thread, after all.

Nowhere in the book is this better embodied that in the care Novik takes with her beautifully-rendered protagonist. Before we meet Miryem, a young Jewish woman whose talent for finance gets her swept into a magical crisis via a hilarious misunderstanding, we must first meet her circumstances: the first thing we hear is that her father, a moneylender, has been brought to the edge of bankruptcy by townspeople who openly refuse to pay him back.

As a child, Miryem watches her warmhearted father back down from disputes and more-or-less forfeit his money out of politeness for years. Spurred on by her mother’s worsening illness, Miryem sets out to improve her family’s lot by taking up moneylending in her father’s stead, and it is at a stranger’s doorstep, with a ledger book waiting for a fresh entry open on her desk at home, that her fairy tale begins.

(Incidentally, I will forever be indebted to every instance of another character referring to the math Miryem uses to keep her family’s accounts as “magic.” Wonder and practicality are not mutually exclusive in folklore, and little kernels like this show us just how well Novik knows it.)

I could write buckets from here about the heady delight of how Novik binds Miryem’s choice to step in for her father to the motifs at the heart of the story, from the “coldness” she has to take on in order to settle the accounts of people who don’t want to, or can’t, directly pay, to the novel’s slow and gratifying reclamation of the language used to describe pragmatic, determined women like Miryem––”icy,” “harsh,” and, again, “cold.” (This is also pivotal in the introduction of the Staryk, Spinning Silver‘s wintry fey, and how they’re re-imagined over the course of the novel.)

Suffice it to say, Novik’s reinvention of her symbols is one of the most elegant I’ve read in recent years. Sophisticated and thoughtful, yes, but also extremely generous with the characters: it affirms rather than sands away their frankly understandable “coldness,” affirming it as a choice of love for the sake of the people and communities they care about, as opposed to the solitary, selfish way we’re used to icy women being characterized.

Alone, Miryem’s plot would still be enchanting, but Spinning Silver also features two deuteragonists and their perspectives: Wanda, who comes to work for Miryem’s family to pay off her father’s debt (and also just to escape him, period), and Irina, a duke’s daughter, who’s staring down the barrel of an unwanted marriage.

There’s a certain beauty in Spinning Silver as a patchwork story. Novik is in no rush to bring the plot up to a fast clip, so scenes linger and ostensibly simple revelations will simmer for the reader before the characters, amidst the workings of their daily lives, come to them. There’s as much excitement in watching the storylines creep together at a slow trawl as there is in watching them actually meet. And with multiple tabs open, so to speak, Spinning Silver makes itself rich in what it seems like so much of storytelling is strapped for: time.

You feel the months pass in one of the threads while in the other, some vital secret is being revealed. The pace isn’t slow so much as it is deliberate, a welcome temper for fantasy’s customary high stakes and great deeds. (Also optimal for the cultivation of a pair of absolutely spellbinding romances, but I find those best discovered in surprise, so I’ll leave it at that.)

Alas, Spinning Silver, like all books, must end, but Novik, of course, nails that too, with an answer to the story’s crisis that respects the humanity of all the members of its ensemble, and puts the power of naming (as per the original Rumpelstiltskin tale––loosely retold here, though marvelously so) to use right where it’s needed, but not necessarily where it’s expected.

There should be a name for a plot twist whose thrill lies in the very process of discovery, to set it apart from a plot twist whose power lies in its ability to shock. Spinning Silver isn’t exactly a book that will have you gasping, but it did have me grinning ear-to-ear as all the answers, emotional and symbolic, came into words precisely as I’d hoped. Say it, say it! I found myself urging my heavy paperback copy.

And then it did.

Author: Pippin Hart

Pippin Hart read Jane Eyre when she was sixteen, and will spend the rest of her life chasing the high.

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