Naomi Novik has received a lot of acclaim for her Temeraire series. Less well-known is her standalone novel, Uprooted. That was my favorite of all the books I read the year it came out, so I was excited to read her new story, Spinning Silver. Although not directly connected to Uprooted, it takes place in a similar setting: a fantasy world inspired by the folklore and culture of Eastern Europe. Miryem, a moneylender’s daughter, becomes so accomplished at her father’s profession that she brags about being able to turn silver into gold. In true fairy tale fashion, this boast attracts the attention of an otherworldly being and locks Miryem into a potentially deadly bargain.
Uprooted gave us a young woman who is far from the stereotypical damsel in distress. In Spinning Silver, Novik outdoes herself by giving us not one, but three competent heroines. Shrewd, courageous, and compassionate, they face both supernatural (a demon, the Staryk) and mundane (an abusive father, political intrigue) threats.
The main character, Miryem, is Jewish, and rather than just being another aspect of her character, her faith plays an important role in the story. It informs her actions and changes the way other characters see her. Two specific rituals of the Jewish faith—the blessing of the first fruits and the traditional wedding dance—are pivotal to the plot.
Another aspect of the story that I really enjoyed was the portrayal of the Staryk, supernatural beings associated with winter and cold. As in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the depiction of the fairies draws from old tales in which even seemingly friendly interactions with them can be dangerous. No gift comes without a price, and you’d better be sure you understand the meaning of any agreement you make. Novik does a great job of taking the reader along for the ride as Miryem navigates the rules by which the Staryk live and die.
Spinning Silver easily lived up to the high expectations set by Uprooted. It’s currently at the top of my Hugo nominations list for the novel category, and I think it will be hard for anything to dislodge it.