JOINT REVIEW: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
I believe this is our first four-person review here at DA. Sirius, Jennie, Jayne and myself review Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver with reactions that run the gamut from “Loved it!” to “Couldn’t finish it.” We hope you’ll enjoy our review. –Janine
Janine: Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik’s standalone follow-up to the Nebula-winning Uprooted, is a fantasy novel set in a Lithuania/Latvia/Russia-based world, a land called Lithvas.
Miryem Mandelstam, a Jewish girl from an impoverished money-lending family (her father is a terrible moneylender), lives in a small village. Eventually, when her mother sickens and the family can’t even afford a doctor, Miryem goes to collect on the villagers’ debts. Miryem has to harden her heart to do this, because the winters in Lithvas are harsh and have been growing harsher. But she is successful.
There is a road that runs near Miryem’s village, called the Staryk road, which belongs to the Staryk, an elven-like people who live in a parallel land unreachable by mortals. The Staryk road is icy and it moves, sometimes running very close to the village, other times more distant from it.
One day, while riding in an open sleigh with her mother on her way home from her grandfather’s house in the city of Vysnia, Miryem boasts to her mother that she can turn silver into gold. Only then does she notice that the Staryk road is close by. Soon after, Miryem’s house is visited by the Staryk, and she finds a bag of silver on her doorstep.
The Staryk have been known to turn people to ice, so a frightened Miryem takes the magical silver to the city of Vysnia, to Isaac, a jeweler, and Isaac, like a man possessed, makes the silver into a ring, which he then sells to the Duke of Vysnia.
Miryem gives half the gold she earns to the jeweler. The rest, she gives back to the King of the Staryk. But because she cannot bear not to profit from her labor—after all, her father’s propensity to do this brought her mother to death’s doorstep—she demands to know what the Staryk king will give her in return.
Furious, the Staryk king replies that he’ll require her to turn his silver to gold twice more. If she fails, she dies, but it she succeeds, he’ll make her his queen. Of course, Miryem desperately fears either outcome.
Besides Miryem, there are two other major POV characters. The first is Wanda, an impoverished girl with an abusive father. Wanda’s mother and the children her mother carried, only to lose them, are buried under a tree at the edge of the Staryk forest—a tree with magical properties, which Wanda believes contains her mother’s spirit.
When her father decides to marry off Wanda, she prays to her mother under the tree, and her mother tells her to wait. Two days later, Miryem, trying to collect on a debt that Wanda’s father owes, demands that if he can’t pay, Wanda come to work for her.
At Miryem’s house, Wanda is warmer and better-fed, and she also learns math and how to help Miryem with debt-collecting. Then Wanda’s sixteen-year-old brother, Sergey, nearly dies after hunting in the forbidden forest of the Staryk. Together with Stepon, her ten-year-old brother, Wanda saves Sergey. With that act, an alliance if formed between Wanda and her brothers, against their abusive father.
The third major character in the book is Irina, the duke’s daughter, who eventually acquires the ring made of the Staryk silver, as well as a necklace and a crown made of the same material. Irina is a quarter Staryk herself (raiding Staryk have been known to rape mortal women), and with the jewelry, the very plain Irina begins to look beautiful to others.
The jewelry also gives Irina a magical ability to cross from Lithvas to the Staryk realm through mirrors, something no other mortal can do. But Irina’s father is determined to marry her to the cruel tsar, who is rumored to be possessed by a demon.
Miryem, Wanda and Irina must all parlay their bad situations into better ones.
Miryem’s storyline was the one I loved best, but I thought Wanda and Irina were also great characters. All three were not only strong, but at times, cold in different ways.
Miryem’s coldness came from her opposition to her father’s overgenerosity, but it was also a reflection of the antisemitism that her family had encountered.
Wanda’s coldness was rooted in the loss of her mother, and portrayed through her initial resentment of her brothers. She was also initially suspicious of the Mandelstams’ faith, but this was mostly due to ignorance, not malice.
Irina’s coldness was fascinating to me because it stemmed from the position she didn’t want but was thrust into. Once she was put on the path of leadership, she started to think like a leader, prioritizing the good of all Lithvas, even if that meant sacrificing individuals.
Jennie: I really liked all three characters’ toughness, and indeed coldness. It made them perversely more sympathetic to me than if they’d just accepted their fates. Instead each tried to better their situation, and at times doing so required a certain hard-heartedness. Irina was probably the one of the three I felt the most distance from emotionally, but at the same time I, like you, was moved by how well she stepped into a role she didn’t want.
Sirius: I think I *understood* all three characters’ toughness and in a lot of situations I found it necessary and understandable; but I did not like it, no. In fact, I appreciated very much that part of Miryem’s journey seemed to be not only taking charge of her destiny and doing things that needed to be done, but also learning how to care. And I ended up hating Irina. Unfortunately, I cannot explain why without giving out very big spoilers, but to me at least, one of her actions crossed the line bigtime.
Jayne: One then two then (suddenly) three young women who are … disappointed in their fathers. To put it mildly. So Miryem, Wanda and Irina decide, one way or another, to take charge of as much of their lives as possible. Miryem by taking over the business from a father she sees as ineffectual (though we begin to see hints of why he doesn’t press too hard against his non-Jewish neighbors in the pogroms that have happened), Wanda in taking the job at Miryem’s, secreting money and manipulating her father’s belief in how long she needs to work to pay off his debt. Then comes Irina who escapes her father through marriage.
Janine: The novel has six POV characters—Miryem, Wanda, Irina and three side characters. Of the latter three, I liked the childlike perspective of Stepon the best—his fear and relief were palpable, and his innocence made him a wonderful mix of (moral) clarity and confusion (about what to do).
Jennie: Stepon got on my nerves a bit. I thought he was realistically portrayed as a child, with a child’s mind, but I think I might have preferred just getting the three main perspectives (I found it occasionally confusing as to whose POV we were getting, which didn’t help).
Sirius: I kind of agree with both of you. I liked Stepon’s POV because to me it felt the most distinct one, but I would rather have just three main characters’ narrating.
Jayne: Yeah, I didn’t care for that many first-person narrators especially as there were no indications at the beginning of each chapter as to who the perspective would be coming from. I had to determine who was taking over this time thus jerking me out of the spell the story was trying to weave. I did like Stepon just because he seemed to be the most distinct for me. I wondered why Novik ended up with this then realized that after certain characters got moved to different locations, a new narrator was the only way to keep an eye on what was happening back at the farm – so to speak.
Janine: I actually liked that I had to figure out who was speaking, though it was a bit jarring. I was impressed with Novik for being able to establish who the character was within the first paragraph without giving us the names.
Re. the last two POV characters—the tsar’s cynical sarcasm made me laugh and start to like him despite his villainy, and Magreta (Irina’s maid / motherly figure) had the frailty of the old, and nicely balanced a story that was mostly told from the perspective of the young. Her past feelings toward the child Irina had a nice complexity to their evolution.
Jayne: Magreta was one of my favorite characters. She initially seems so frail and silly but her backstory reveals someone who has faced danger and survived then forged a place for herself.
Jennie: The interesting thing about the tsar’s viewpoint was that he came off slightly smarter and more self-aware in his POV compared to how Irina saw him. I thought that was interesting.
Sirius: And once again I cannot explain why I feel the way I feel about the tsar without spoilers, but I really disliked him. However, I disliked what happened between him and Irina even more.
Jayne: I agree with you about the squirrels and I never warmed up to him before the point where I stopped reading.
Janine: His killing the squirrels as a boy disturbed me a lot too.
Janine: The Staryk king, Miryem’s parents, and Wanda’s brother Sergey are also important characters, but we don’t get their POVs. I really liked Sergey, the Staryk king fascinated me, Miryem’s parents were heartwarming, and I found even some of the minor characters really interesting.
Jennie: I thought the secondary characters had a lot of complexity; even the villains weren’t entirely one-dimensional.
Janine: There’s also a lot of thematic richness here – the book is an exploration of literal and figurative coldness and warmth, poverty and wealth, debt and reciprocation. Other themes are commitments both ironclad and escapable, stinginess vs. generosity, and thefts.
It is fascinating to see these themes in a book where Judaism looms large, because qualities like wealth, cold-hearted debt-collecting, thieving and stinginess are ascribed to Jewish people in stereotypes. Novik is not only examining these qualities in the book, but unraveling the stereotypes and the dehumanization that attends them.
Sirius: This was my favorite part of the book because off the top of my head, I’ve never ever read the story with a Jewish heroine playing such an important role and where, as you say, Judaism looms large.
Janine: I loved that too. Parallel to the mortal world is the Staryk society, which operates very differently.
Jayne: I started to get annoyed with the Staryk. There are hints and vague but menacing descriptions of them. Who are they? What are they? But it went on too long for me before we finally started to get some answers.
Jennie: Honestly, it took me a bit to even understand how the Staryk worked! Their portrayal was well-done but their value system felt so foreign that it took me a while to understand that they weren’t one-dimensional villains (though there was still the pillaging and the raping, which is brushed aside a bit in the end).
Janine: I was fascinated by them.
Although I found the book romantic, I would not call it a romance. Rather, it is a book about young women thrust into difficult circumstances by men, and who learn to acquire agency and free themselves.
Jayne: Too bad that each woman is forced into worse circumstances just as she has gained some degree of control over her life.
Janine: The Act I turning point is where things go bad for the protagonist(s) in any novel, so I expected it.
Sirius: I would not call the book a romance, but where Irina is concerned I do not find the ending romantic either, I found it contrived and did not buy a potential future for them at all.
Jennie: I actually very much liked the ambiguity of the ending with Irina and the tsar.
Janine: All three women face difficult moral dilemmas.
The characters have a nice multidimensionality. Miryem starts the book feeling cold and ungenerous, but paradoxically, the more time she spends with in the cold, wintry Staryk world, the more she discovers warmth and generosity in herself.
Miryem’s father, Panov Mandelstam, is so generous, warm, and forgiving of others’ debts that his own family goes hungry and cold while those he lends to fare better. At first, this seems like weakness, but by the end of the book, it’s reframed somewhat.
Jennie: I still felt Panov Mandelstam, while a good person, failed in his responsibilities and let Miryem and his wife down. I liked him but I wouldn’t want to have to depend on him.
Sirius: I agree with Jennie. I thought Miryem’s father was quite useless in providing for his family. And I even got annoyed at Miryem’s mom in the beginning when she dared to complain that Miryem was becoming cold. Of course they both loved her very much, but dear god, she was providing for you people. Shut up or help her if you ask me.
Jayne: Hahahahaha. My thoughts exactly. Though I did begin to slowly understand why he didn’t bust down doors for repayments I still felt that he needed to get his act together and at least knock. Especially as he seemed to be watching his beloved wife slipping towards death’s door and reaching out for the doorknob.
Janine: Yes! My sympathy was and remains with Miryem there. However, as the story progressed her father’s kindness to Wanda and her brothers made me like him better. His softheartedness was never mitigated, but the upside of it got to shine a bit more.
Miryem’s grandfather, a much better moneylender, initially seems tightfisted, and doesn’t want Miryem’s grandmother to buy young Miryem pretty dresses because he won’t throw good money after bad. But he is actually the most helpful person to Miryem in terms of his advice to her.
Spinning Silver has terrific worldbuilding and a lovely fairytale feel. Among its influences are the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale, Cinderella, and the Hades and Persephone myth, but much of it read as original and fresh to me.
Janine: Novik’s prose style is pure joy to read; her metaphors can feel like flights of fancy but they never seem distracting or excessive. Lines like “I suppose it is only to be expected from people who didn’t take on debts and were used to entire chambers wandering off and having to be called like cats” tickled my funny bone, and there were also sentences that perfectly hit a darker emotional note, such as “And then he stepped forward and the heavy door swung shut in my face, leaving me with a casket full of silver coins and a belly full of dismay.”
Jennie: I loved the prose. I really enjoy Novik’s writing. This was not a quick read for me, but it wasn’t slow because it was boring; it was more that it was rich and I needed to savor it.
Jayne: Slow is the word I would use. Deadly slow. “Get on with it” slow.
Janine: I was dying to know what would happen next so it was a page turner for me.
The imagery in the book and the use of color are just lovely. The Staryk’s winter kingdom is described in colors like white, silver and blue.
Jayne: The land of the Staryk was described in such extensive detail and at such length that I began to get bored. Perhaps this was intended as a way to show how bored Miryem was there but to paraphrase the way she told off the Staryk lord, it’s not a good idea to bore the people reading the book if you want them to keep reading. The bored feeling I got in the endless descriptions of the Staryk world continued. Lots of dull, dull, dull before anything would happen. If you like fascination with mind numbing details about so much nothing – here you go. Me? I need a higher proportion of action to description.
Janine: Many of those details turned out to be relevant to the plot, though some of that wasn’t apparent until late in the book.
I appreciated the way in which Miryem’s faith mattered in the story. Plot points revolve around Miryem’s need to observe Shabbat and dance the hora at her cousin’s wedding and this is treated with normalcy and not othered by the book, only by the antisemitic characters.
I ended up liking this book much better than Uprooted, which I’d had problems with. Some of this is due to representation—this is the first fantasy novel I’ve read with a Jewish main character—but a lot of it was due to the loveliness of the book.
Sirius: See, it is shocking to me when you say that this was your first fantasy novel with a Jewish main heroine. I would have thought that in the United States there would be a lot of stories with Jewish leads.
Janine: There are a lot, but mostly in literary, mainstream and women’s fiction. In most genre fiction I’ve come across fewer, and in the fantasy genre, even less.
Jennie: I liked it a lot as well, and very much liked the Jewish aspects of the story, though I’m not Jewish. I also really liked the way the fairytale aspects came together at the end.
Sirius: I loved the Jewish aspects of the book and appreciated Miryem’s journey, in fact the book often read to me as a historical (it is a compliment!). I mean I know that it has magic in it and the setting encompasses several of eastern European countries, so it is not really a historical, but the detailed writing made the narrative very realistic to me.
Jayne: Those were the aspects I did like: how religion was central to the characters backgrounds and to their actions and thoughts. I enjoyed the Eastern European setting though unfortunately, I’ve not loved either this book or another I read last year – “The Bear and the Nightingale” by Katherine Arden which was set in Russia.
Sirius: However, overall feeling I finished was guilt. I mean, I don’t mind hating a story which I do not find well-executed, but here of course I can see it is an extremely well-written book, with rich themes and characters, as you guys described it. But Irina spoiled the book for me and I cannot say that I will ever want to reread it again.
Jayne: Well, you finished it. I got to the 80% point and couldn’t take it anymore. It was like trying to slog uphill through deep mud in the pouring rain. I didn’t want to waste any more of my life trying. Thankfully I knew going into it that this is not a romance – or rather that romance isn’t the main theme of the book.
Sirius: I will go with double grade: B/D. B for the whole story and D for Irina.
Jayne: My grade is DNF.
Janine: My grade is an A-/A. It’s the best book I’ve read this year so far.
Jennie: I’ll give it an A-/A as well.