Book Review: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Del Rey (July 10, 2018)
Length: 480 pages
I know I’m in the minority here, but I didn’t love this book. Oh, I enjoyed it well enough, because it’s Naomi Novik and her prose is always excellent, and Spinning Silver was beautifully written. However, I’ve also had enough experience with work (especially with the Temeraire series) to know her books can be very hit or miss. Believe me, I was thrilled when she started writing fairy-tale-inspired fantasy novels, and I absolutely adored Uprooted, but I just wasn’t as taken with this one as I expected to be.
The story of Spinning Silver contains several POVs, but the closest we have to a main protagonist is Miryem, the daughter of a very bad moneylender. Everyone knows her father will let late payments slide, and is too timid to chase down what is owed. As a result, Miryem’s family lives in poverty while her father’s borrowers flourish, until one day, our protagonist has had enough, and she sets out into the village to knock on the door of everyone with outstanding payments. And as it turns out, Miryem makes a rather formidable moneylender. Very quickly, she turns a pouch of silver pennies that her father loaned her into a big bag full of gold.
But even more quickly, rumors of a girl who can change silver to gold began to spread far and wide, eventually reaching the ears of the Staryk, cold-hearted beings of folklore who desire gold and riches above anything else. Miryem catches the attention of their wintry ruler, who orders her to transform his vast stores of silver into gold, and in return he will make her his queen.
First, I’ll go into what I loved about the book: the atmosphere and folksy fairy tale vibes that bring to mind the dark, mysterious charms of a Brothers Grimm story. If the plot of Spinning Silver reminded you a bit of Rumpelstiltskin, that’s because the novel is loosely inspired by that tale, though you’ll also likely catch snippets and elements from a lot of different fairy tales while reading. One of the most impressive things the author has done here is the way she incorporates these stories and their themes into a new narrative, focusing on relatable and genuine characters while still preserving a lot of the original wonder and magic. This has always been Naomi Novik’s forte whether she’s writing about dragons in the Napoleonic Wars or a persistent moneylender’s daughter from a rural village. Whenever she reimagines a world, she does it in a way that’s rooted in history and folkloric tradition, but the end result is always complex and creative enough to make it stand out from the rest.
And now, for the things I didn’t like so much. Unfortunately for me, the second half of this book was kind of a slog. Part of the problem was Spinning Silver wasn’t just a story about Miryem, and over time, more characters are introduced to the mix. I didn’t mind it at first; Wanda for one was a wonderful new addition, and I loved the strength she showed even through hard, trying times. Then there was Irina, a girl born into the royal court, but while she may be rich in possessions, she is poor in love. Despite her upbringing though, she is selfless and caring, only wanting to do right by her people. Later on, however, we also have a few other minor POVs join their voices, and that’s where things started to get a little messy. First of all, I didn’t feel that all these perspectives were really necessary, as overall they didn’t add as much as I would have liked. Second, whereas I found myself completely rapt by the intro and first half of the novel, the rest of it felt convoluted and a bit bloated. Also, the book was probably longer than it had to be, which, admittedly, was an issue with Uprooted as well. The difference there was that I was able to push through some of the slower and more meandering parts, but here I found it was a struggle to even stay focused. It’s a shame because I loved the first half of the book, but the momentum and interest I found there did not extend all the way through to the end (though to be fair, things did pick up again just in time for the conclusion).
Like I said, I enjoyed Spinning Silver, but I also don’t think it’s a standout for the genre, especially when fairy tale retellings and stories grounded in folklore are all the rage at the moment, with so many recent book releases that feel thematically and narratively similar. It’s also not my favorite book by Novik, and incidentally, I preferred Uprooted a lot more. Truly, I wish I had loved this one just as much, but I simply couldn’t get over some of my frustrations with the slower, more tedious, and convoluted parts. Still a very good read, however, and I encourage you to pick this one up if you are a fan of the author or imaginative retellings.