Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

“There are men who are wolves inside, and want to eat up other people to fill their bellies. […] You have fed each other, and you kept the wolf away. That is all we can do for each other in the world, to keep the wolf away.”

I don’t like fairy tales. Not at all. Especially not Grimm’s fairy tales. In fact, I dislike those so intensely for their cruelty and “rough justice” that I didn’t read them to my kids and hated them as a kid. Sorry, Little Red Riding Hood, for more than 40 years (and counting!) I’ve been rooting for the Big Bad Wolf!

Thus, it was with some reservations when I started reading “Spinning Silver” which turned out to be a fantastic story, masterfully told.

A soft-hearted moneylender’s daughter, Miryem, finds out she metaphorically has the ability to turn silver into gold which, in turn, becomes known to the king of winter. The king presses Miryem into his services and even kidnaps her.

The local duke’s daughter, Irina, is married off to the country’s tsar who is obsessed by a fire demon. Last but not least, there’s Wanda and her brothers whose lives are intertwined by fate with those of Miryem and Irina.

Sounds complex and maybe complicated? Well, yes, it is. Pretty much every major character gets to tell a part of the story from a first-person perspective which lends credibility and depth to the narrative. Unfortunately, this is one of the two notable flaws of “Spinning Silver”: Perspectives are usually switched with the chapter, sometimes even within a chapter and we, the readers, don’t get told but are “dumped” into the new point of view.

This makes things more dramatic at times but much more confusing as well. When I was even slightly tired (and who isn’t sometimes?!) or sleepy (e. g. when reading in bed) I would sometimes wonder who was actually narrating at that moment. The positive effect is, from my point of view (sic!), by far outweighed by the potential confusion. I would have wished for the narrator’s name in the chapter heading or whenever the perspective changed because the “confusion effect” would destroy the immersion.

Immersion, though, is a great factor of my enjoyment and despite my complaint “Spinning Silver” is one of those books between the lines and pages of which I could lose myself. While I read the words and absorbed the story, glorious pictures of green pastures during summer and snow-clad forests during harsh winters rose before my inner eye.

The story is so powerfully and yet gracefully and sensitively told, I felt like the narrated world got real and its inhabitants with their merits and flaws became fully fleshed-out human beings. As if that alone hadn’t yet been enough, Novik employs a decent, mostly subtle and sometimes dry humour, often finely laced with irony:

“I was reasonably certain he wasn’t going to try and devour my soul. My expectations for a husband had lowered.”

Each character, even the afore-mentioned husband, gets to develop “organically”: Rarely has careful character development felt as real as in “Spinning Silver”. You cannot help but believe the motivation of every single character and while some turns in the story are predictable, they are so delectably satisfying and wonderfully enjoyable.

Did I convince you to read this remarkable book yet? No, well maybe you want some “philosophical” depth to your books? Do not falter, “Spinning Silver” is for you!

While unobtrusive at it, this book deals with deep moral and philosophical matters – does the well-being of many outweigh the needs of few? May I even sacrifice one life to save many? Does the “greater good” allow for any means? The answers to those questions aren’t simply provided, though:

“I say to you, here are the dangers. Some are more likely than others. Weigh them, put them all together, and you will know the cost. Then you must say, is this what you owe?”

Depending on your personal answers to those questions you might find yourself in a bit of a moral dilemma at times.

On the other hand, even those who prefer a more “hands-on” approach may find themselves at home in this story as it’s perfectly summed up by one of our heroines:

“What did it matter that they didn’t speak of kindness, here; they had done me a kindness with their hands. I knew which one of those I would choose.”

In spite of all this praise I must not fail to deliver one more issue that slightly marred my reading enjoyment: At times, “Spinning Silver” does feel a little “slow”. As mentioned before, the story is lavishly told, in great depth and detail and, for me at two points in the story, it ever so slightly drags on.

Then again, if a story is that good, the language so enjoyable and even the villains so relatable if not likeable, how can I find fault in something like this?

“Warm gold blushed through the whole length of it with the slightest push of my will, and the child gave a soft delighted tinkling sigh that made it feel more like magic than all the work I’d done in the treasury below.”

And, thus, my review ends…

“I had spun the silk and then I had knitted it with the finest needles in the vines and flowers of the duke’s crest”

… and with equal care this story is spun. Reluctantly leaving the lines and pages I’ve rejoiced being lost between, I’m hastening towards Novik’s “Uprooted” next – and you go read “Spinning Silver”, and, please, keep the wolf away.

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