Tower of the Hand

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

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Aug 16, 2020, 9:00 PM ET
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Naomi Novik is perhaps best known for her Temeraire series, which imagined dragons during the Napoleonic Wars. (We'll talk more about fantasy and dragons in a future book review, trust me.) But Novik later earned lots of recognition for Uprooted, a retelling of the Baba Yaga folklore that she was told as a child. Hers was a curious but carefully crafted world of magic, and one of my better reads of the past decade. So it was of great interest to me when Novik published another twist on fairy tales, and one that was subsequently rewarded with Locus, Hugo, and Nebula award nominations: Spinning Silver.

In the imaginary eastern European kingdom of Lithvas, Miryem is a young woman who has taken over her father's money-lending business. Her business savvy attracts the unwanted attention of the Staryk king, who demands that Miryem turn his silver into gold. Yes, it's a new take on Rumpelstiltskin, in case the title didn't give that away, but Naomi Novik has given the classic villain some much-needed backstory. Throughout the book, I couldn't help but picture the Night King from Game of Thrones -- both are nightmarish creatures who threaten the world with eternal winter -- except the Staryk king's actions here are clear and understandable, albeit unreasonable.

But the real protagonists of Spinning Silver are its three leading ladies: the aforementioned Miryem, who anchors the entire story with her questions about debt and honor debt; Irina, a noblewoman who is entangled with the story's other magical creature (a fire demon, natch); and Wanda, a peasant whose poor family slowly but surely works its way into the household of a richer family (a less cynical Parasite). The young women, though very distinct in personality and upbringing, share one vital trait: a steadfast determination to see things through. Most of the dire situations they find themselves in are not of their own making; nevertheless they persist.

If I have one complaint about the book, it's that at nearly 500 pages it's a bit long for the story it ends up telling. A few other perspectives are introduced well into the book, to varying degrees of likability and of questionable necessity. But my complaint is not simply about relevance. Two pivotal moments late in the book are told from the perspectives of these naifs. Perhaps Novik wanted to convey the wonders of magic from the eyes of those least familiar with it, but I wish we could have gotten into the heads of our protagonists at their peak agency instead. I'd love to hear from anyone who has thoughts about this.

Anyway, if you haven't read Spinning Silver, here's my question for you: what are your favorite books that have re-imagined a classic villain?

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