Naomi Novik’s novel “Spinning Silver,” published in 2018, is a spiritual sister (though not a sequel) to her much-lauded “Uprooted” (2016), and just as compellingly explores Eastern European folklore with her own refreshing twists. With the first paragraph a retelling of the “real story” of Rumpelstiltskin (“getting out of paying your debts”), it spirals into something more unique. Unlike many works inspired by fairytales, Novik does not rely on staid tropes as much as she plays with and challenges them, crafting a story where characters can at once be both virtuous and cruel, monstrous and heroic, misunderstood villain and noble queen.
Weaving together at least six different first-person voices, Novik follows the journeys of three women in their journeys to make their lives their own: Miryem, a daughter of a Jewish moneylender who takes over her father’s business, Irina, the isolated daughter of a duke who seeks to marry her highly, and Wanda, a hopelessly indebted farmer’s daughter. The prose reflects the relative education level and inclinations of each perspective, with Miryem and Irina’s more elevated language, and Wanda’s sparser vocabulary and shorter sentences. Each story thread crosses with the others, coalescing into a deeper thematic exploration of borrowing from the future, honoring oaths and paying “what is owed” to self, family and country.
Novik’s elaborate world lends itself as a fertile foundation for a novel so complexly-wrought, it could have been extended further without much fan protest (ah well, there’s always fanfiction). Drawing from Eastern European mythology and folklore, its thrilling magic follows the logic of fairytales, with enchanted trees growing atop family graves, powers becoming true after being proven three times, a house inhabiting two realms and even a man cursed to share his body with a demon since birth.
At the novel’s start, Miryem’s kindhearted moneylender father — unwilling to be harsh in enforcing his contracts — has led his family to live in poverty. As much as she loves her father, when her mother falls deathly ill, Miryem refuses to let her succumb to the winter frost. She goes out “wrapped in coldness” to take back her family’s wealth. Even when her neighbors try to send her away, she notes, “ I found something bitter inside myself, something of that winter blown into my heart … I stayed in their doorways, and I didn’t move.”
Unlike her father, Miryem recognizes the necessity of a firm voice in demanding money repaid, though it brings social discomfort. To ensure an impoverished farmer pays off his debt, Miryem conscripts his daughter Wanda to work for her family, eventually linking their fates together when Wanda leaves her abusive father and eventually moves in with Miryem’s parents. However, Miryem’s unorthodox business practices and skillful bargains in expanding her family’s wealth not only elicit her neighbors’ resentment, but also exacerbates her family’s ostracization from the village due to their Jewish culture.
Amidst these rising tensions, Miryem’s talents attract the attentions of the Staryk king, an otherworldly ruler of the elvish personifications of winter. Challenged to “turn silver into gold” or forfeit her life, she sells Staryk silver jewelry to Irina’s father (who pays in gold), and the king marries her as an ill-wanted reward. Meanwhile, Irina — bedecked in the stunning creations — beguiles her countrymen with her charm and her charmed jewelry, eventually marrying the tsar and becoming the de facto ruler of the land.
However, unlike traditional fairytales, Miryem and Irina’s problems only escalate with their royal marriages. In gaining material wealth, they become trapped under the weight of other problems, with spouses who aim to murder them, squabbles among the nobility, and meting out the fate of both the human and Staryk realms, both trapped in a harsh winter due to the unquenchable thirst of a demon.
And yet, within every contract and story, there are at least two different sides, with people fueled by differing motivations, skills, leverage and assets which led them to collaborate in the first place.
Where Novik spectacularly succeeds is in shaping the dynamic personalities of her characters, which drive the reader to reflect on the moral dilemmas surrounding traditional fairytale plots (and biblical allusions, such as Judith slaying Holofernes). No one is wholly good or bad, and they will both charm and horrify you in their quests to save their homes by whatever means necessary. Miryem and Irina’s spouses — the Staryk king and the tsar — first appear rather despicable, but Novik’s brilliant characterization reveals that their darker sides respectively stem from a sense of responsibility (the king tries to save his failing lands) and a demonic possession (the tsar is beholden to its manipulations).
The Staryk realm, at first appearing as a brittle, frigid place, warms to Miryem once she understands that the rigidity of the culture also means oaths are taken to the highest extreme, with debts and generosity always repaid. Meanwhile, Irina swiftly acclimatizes to the political games of the nobles with alacrity, wielding her power to address the needs of the peasants and establish a flourishing empire.
The characters’ interlinked arcs, along with changes of heart, lead to two epic final battles, with Miryem and Irina saving their respective realms, and Wanda content in a snug cottage in the woods with her brothers and newfound family.
Admittedly, much like its predecessor, “Uprooted,” the novel’s romantic subplots — nonetheless linked to the theme, as marriage is a form of contract — spring from the gothic archetype of a disproportionately powerful man who falls for a virtuous younger woman. While the heroines in this case are not meek and kind — Miryem’s shrewd bargain-making and Irina’s calculating ruthlessness are not typical traits rewarded in folktales — they nevertheless “prove their worth” by their talents and success, eventually leading their husbands to reform.
By the end of the novel, the heroines have earned their reward: years of peace and prosperity. The Staryk king accepts Miryem’s proposal of a Jewish wedding and honors her by revealing his secret name, and the tsar gazes at Irina like “she is the most beautiful thing in the world.” But do the romantic leads even “earn” (what a loaded word it becomes) the heroines themselves?
The turbulence of these characters, before and after the “redemptions,” makes you wonder if their futures will truly be happily ever after. If on your wedding night your husband tried to poison you, or feed you to a demon, would you ever be able to overlook that?
By fairytale logic, perhaps. After all, the heroines planned the very same.
Novik’s unflinching portrayal of the gritty underside to fairytales and their “happy endings,” especially when showing the consequences of breaking a promise — and how money can both corrupt and mend — is what makes the novel truly lasting. She has crafted a rare treasure in “Spinning Silver,” with a beautifully written, never-boring, thought-provoking and flawlessly executed tale worth every read.
Contact Shana Hadi at shanaeh ‘at’ stanford.edu.