I don’t own any of my favorite books. As soon as I finish them I press them into the hands of others, desperate to pass their brilliance along. This is how it went with Spinning Silver.
I read Naomi Novik’s first fairy tale retelling, Uprooted, a few years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. For whatever reason, I never wrote a post about it, but I really liked the book despite a couple of quibbles. When Spinning Silver came out, I added to to my to-read list. Then the stellar reviews kept coming, especially from my friends, and I knew I had to move the book up my list. I bought it from Room of One’s Own while in Madison for WisCon, and read it within a week, barely able to put it down once I started. Here’s how it stacks up to the Scale:
Not offensive to women = 1/1 pt
Features a woman as the main protagonist and/or supporting character = 2/2 pts
Passes the Bechdel-Wallace test = 3/3 pts
Not offensive, multiple female viewpoint characters and multiple instances of passing the Bechdel test. There are no out LGBT characters. There is no racial diversity to speak of.
The story is set in a Russia/Eastern European-analogue country. The main marginalized group in this story are the Jewish characters, and their poor treatment by others is a catalyst for the plot and a motivation for main character Miryem.
Artistic and/or Entertaining = 4/4 pts
I said above that I liked Uprooted but had a couple of small issues with it. With Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik totally leveled up. She took all the good parts of Uprooted (fantastic setting, great writing), and added in stronger characters and a finely-honed plot.
The characters were electric. Multiple viewpoints are shown, but the anchors to the story are Miryem (whose perspective opens and closes the novel, and so she could be called the main character), Irina, and Wanda. Not only do all these women face huge challenges, they are all distinct personalities with differing motivations. As their paths cross, sometimes these motivations are aligned, and sometimes they aren’t.
The plot, and the management of these overlapping stories, was awesome. I’m going to be a writer nerd for a minute here and talk about magic systems. When writers write fantasy, they make up the magic, but they also put rules around it. The reader learns the rules and then sets their expectations around that system. A good book follows those rules. A great book breaks those rules in a creative, earned way.
Novik wrote a creative, engaging story, and along the way she laid the groundwork for an amazing ending. I can’t really get into the three excellent magic moments that made up the end of the novel, so you’ll have to trust me and go read it for yourself. Just know that they came organically from the story and the characters, making for a really satisfying ending.
Above and Beyond General Media = 5/5 pts
This book is often called a Rumpelstiltskin retelling, which I feel is pretty inaccurate. It’s clear Novik was inspired by an older set of fairy tales, and she weaves together at least five recognizable tales that I can remember off the top of my head. I loved the mix of familiar fairy tale ambiance, threaded through with Jewish culture and heritage.
I’ve read some Jewish SFF, but not much, and what I have read has been more overtly religious. Spinning Silver focused more on the Jewish culture and how it manifests in a world with many of the same prejudices but a lot more magical elements. I can only speak from the perspective of a non-Jewish reader, but I think anyone would find this artful balance fresh and compelling.
Have I complimented this book enough yet?? Go read it! If you have read it, meet me in the comments for a spoilery discussion.
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