A Smart Re-imagined Fairytale
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
My previous encounter with a retelling of a fairytale left me feeling as though molten anger was seeping from every pore. I honestly thought it would be a while before I trusted myself to try another. Thankfully, I listen to The Overdue Podcast and they were able to convince me that Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik was not only a great retelling but just a great story overall. Because of this it was one of my first selections for my BoTM subscription.
While there are plenty of fantasy/fairytale elements weaved within the story the baseline retelling is that of the old fairytale Rumpelstiltskin. Our main character is Miryem, whose family is poor due to her father’s inability to collect on his investments as the local money lender. Determined to change their reputation and their finances Miryem takes it upon herself to collect the money owed to her family. And to everyone’s surprise she’s really good at it.
The story then jumps to Wanda, a girl living in the house of her drunk abusive father, with her two younger brothers. Wanda is worried that she is destined to be sold off at her father’s leisure to the first eligible bachelor that shows an interest (and has either money or alcohol to trade for her). These circumstances change for Wanda when Miryem comes to collect the debt that Wanda’s father owes. In exchange of payment Wanda agrees to go work for Miryem and her family. Wanda’s story is not based off a specific fairytale, but it is a familiar fairytale trope.
For the first time Wanda can see clearly a future that won’t involve her being sold like chattel. While working for Miryem she not only earns money, but also learns how to run Miryem’s business. This requires her to learn to read and understand mathematics, which she describes as magic in and of itself. This was one of my favorite moments in the novel. Wanda’s simple understanding of learning and attributing it to a kind of magic that will set her free. It was sweet and meaningful in the best way because I am one who does believe that knowledge is a kind of magic.
Like a common fairytale Miryem’s skill starts a rumor that she has the ability to turn actual silver into actual gold. This isn’t be a big deal except for the Staryk, ice giants who have a deep greed for gold. No fairytale would be complete without a mystical creature of some sort. Miryem’s ability reaches the ears of the Staryk King so he gives her the task of changing his Staryk silver into gold. If she refuses he will kill her family and her. If she succeeds he will marry her and she will be Queen of the Staryk.
This is the main thread that connects the fairytale Rumpelstiltskin to this modern fairytale story.
Not wanting to have her family murdered she agrees and takes the Staryk King’s silver. With the help of a jeweler she has the silver melted down and turned into a ring. The ring is sold to a local nobleman in the hopes that it will help his daughter, Irina, win the heart of the Tsar who we later find out is possessed by a fire demon. Probably not the best husband you’d want for your daughter. Though I just had an image of a more pissed off Calcifer in my mind, so who knows maybe it’s not all bad.
Miryem successfully turns the Staryk silver “into gold” so the King returns with even more silver to turn. This time Miryem has it melted into a necklace and the third time a crown; both are again purchased by the nobleman for his daughter. This actually pays off, but not for the reasons he and Irina think. You see the Fire demon possessing the Tsar feeds on ice, namely those of Staryk descent. This is when we learn that Irina is from Staryk blood, at least partly. It’s enough for her to transport into the land of the Staryk through any reflective; surface as long as she is wearing at least two pieces of the jewelry made of Staryk silver.
Meanwhile, Miryem has completed the tasks given to her from the Staryk King and is now his Queen. She can also literally turn silver to gold now. By chance Miryem encounters Irina in the land of the Staryk during one of her many escapes from the fire demon. Here they decide that the best way to get out of their current situations is to have the fire demon and the Staryk King fight each other. Regardless of who wins both girls can escape their captures.
I don’t want to give away too much more and I definitely don’t want to spoil the ending. This was a definitely a fun read from beginning to end and it’s one of the few fairytales with only females leads that I truly enjoyed. I don’t understand why heroines are so difficult to write, but Novik gets it perfectly. Spinning Silver is a perfect read on ways to uplift your female characters without necessarily making your male characters villainous. You don’t need to have one to achieve the other. Though they aren’t some of the greatest people, I did still enjoy reading the male characters. I wish there were more stories like this. Ones where females can be the heroes and the males are solid second characters.
The narration switches between characters. Namely between Miryem, Wanda, and Irina, while sometimes other characters get a short chapter. The important thing is that it still flows and doesn’t feel forced. I really thought the writing was impressive. I would recommend this story. Especially to those that enjoy fairytales and want a fresh take on a more well known one.
4.5 out of 5*
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