Hugo 2019 Novels: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

One of the things I admire about some of the best short stories is the way some writers can quickly establish both character and setting with a few brushstrokes. Short stories have little space to linger and if we are going to find ourselves caring about a person’s fate, establishing a distinctive person quickly is a necessary skill. It’s not often something you see in novels though.

Spinning Silver is not “Uprooted 2” but it shares common features: based on folk tale tropes and using a (sort of) Eastern European setting to tell an original story with familiar aspects. Instead, we get a story of multiple characters navigating a world of promises, oaths and bargains and the consequences of ambiguous terms.

Miryem is the daughter of an overly kind Jewish money lender in a small community in a Russia-like (or maybe Poland-like) country of harsh winters and deep forests. Her father’s gentle soul is a poor match for his occupation and his unwillingness to chase down debts in the hostile community (and the very real fear of violent reprisals) has forced Miryem’s family into potentially fatal poverty. In desperation she hardens her own emotions to collect the debts her family is owned, if not in cash then in kind. In the process she ends up employing a peasant girl, Wanda, to help her ailing mother as a means by which Wanda’s violent father can pay off an old debt.

Wanda adds a second perspective to the novel but she is just one of several viewpoints. The story jumps from Miryem to Wanda to the daughter of a noble to Wanda’s brother, to a Tsar and to a noble’s daughter’s maid. As the book progresses these shifts of perspective occur within chapters with little notification and yet the voices are so clear and distinct that there’s very few transitions that are confusing.

What the shifts of perspective provide is insight into the magical conflict that is going on around the more gritty lives of pre-industrial Eastern Europe. The winter forest contains not just the normal perils of hypothermia, hunger and wild beasts but also the Staryk: fae beings with wintery powers and a jealous ownership of all purely white animals in the forest.

In very slight parallels with Rumplestiltskin, an idle boast of Miryem’s that her money making skills “spin silver into gold” catches the attention of the fearsome Staryk king and forces Miryem into a supernatural bargain to save her family. It’s the very familiarity of the situation and its echoes with classic fairy-tales that makes the subsequent narrative so surprising and compelling. Without ever undermining those expectations, the story then heads off on a wild sleigh ride, layering on changes in expectations, protagonists and antagonists throughout. Nothing is quite as it seems initially and it’s not until about two-thirds of the way through the book that the final destination becomes clearer.

I should add that this is a book about trades and bargains between powerless people and powerful people. It is not a book that explores consent and some of the character choices (particularly towards the end) are very much about the pragmatism of the poor and powerless in the face of a chance of survival rather than the choices of modern characters.

Despite some elements of brutality and violence, this is also a deeply kind book. Generosity of spirit suffuse through the book and mark out people who give without expectation of return. The kindness of people in hardship to each other is a central virtue of characters as well as the bounds of family.

It is also a book with an excellent sense of magic to it. Magic has an awesome quality in the old sense of “awe” that is both wonderful and to be feared. The Staryk are a enchanting depiction of fearsomely magical beings with powers too great for them to be good. The arrival of other magical threats into the story then allows us to see other layers to the conflict with humanity, the full magnitude of which is not revealed until deep into the story.

I was really taken aback by how good this novel is. I very much enjoyed Uprooted and obviously Novik is a strong and deeply experienced writer but I found Spinning Silver to be at another level to the point that it paradoxically makes Uprooted seem less good as a novel. A very, very strong contender for this year’s Hugo Awards.


23 thoughts on “Hugo 2019 Novels: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

  1. I liked the Temeraire books, but I didn’t particularly care for Uprooted and I don’t care for Spinning Silver either. Part of this is that I’m simply no fan of the current vogue for fairytale retellings and fairytale inspired fantasy, because much of it is not nearly as new and innovative as it thinks it is. Though I did like the fact that the heroine is Jewish, because that’s not something you see in many fairytale retellings, while the originals occasionally contained some gross anti-semitism, though those stories have usually been removed in newer editions.

    Another problem for me is that I realy dislike Naomi Novik’s depiction of borderline abusive romantic relationships. If the heroine’s love interest is so awful that I hope the three raptor sisters from Brooke Bolander’s fairytale will eat him, them ending up together is not a happy ending.

    But I guess I’m in the minority with regard to Spinning Silver and The Calculating Stars (which I like even less), since lots of other people seem to like them.

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    1. I didn’t much like Calculating Stars either. As for the partnerships in Spinning Silver, I think one of the points Novik was making was about how differently things can look from different perspectives. Each character had good reasons for acting in the ways they did, whether or not those reasons were immediately understandable.

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    2. The Jewish aspects of the novel broke my suspension of disbelief, I think primarily because the setting is mostly “Eastern Europe with the serial numbers filed off” except the Jews are actual Jews without any noticeable secondary world modifications. I kept getting distracted by questions like “what is this world’s Middle East history like and how did the Diaspora happen”.

      But honestly from the start I was not thrilled to be reading a book where the Jewish protagonist essentially had “being good at making money” as a defining skill/power. I’m probably oversensitive to this kind of thing because of the last couple years but it felt a little too much like a positive stereotype to me. I recognize the historical reality of limits on professions open to Jews but this ties back to what I said above; if the goal is “Jewish representation” I’m not … sure if I’m supposed to feel represented here given that my family left Eastern Europe over a century ago. (I’d much rather read about, say, Jewish astronauts.)

      I think a lot of my issues with Spinning Silver come down to me being the wrong reader for this book (heck, I’m not super into fairytale-based fantasy even in general, so I’m probably forcing a more strictly secondary-world reading that it perhaps deserves) but it was still a rather frustrating read for me.

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      1. Would it change your feelings at all to know that Novik is descended from Eastern European Jews? (I don’t know whether she identifies as Jewish herself or not.)

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  2. I agree with a lot of the things you say are the strengths of this novel, and I enjoyed it despite the fact that fairytale retellings are not my favorite sort of story. I did especially like the fact that the book did not hew too closely to any of the fairytales and folktales it uses for inspiration, instead telling an original story with a lot of those influences.

    But the lack of examination of the subject of consent, and the fact that not one, but two characters ended up staying in marriages with abusive men who were “redeemed” by those women was a real sticking point for me. While that may reflect pragmatism on the part of the characters, to rate a fairytale retelling highly, I need it to do some subversion of the old toxic gender tropes, rather than reinforcing them.

    Given the weakness of some of the other finalists, this will likely be second on my ballot.

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    1. I haven’t read the book, but it seems to me it doesn’t reinforce certain existing gender realities in certain contexts, as they are clearly and easily identified as toxic by you and other readers in the comments here.

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      1. bormgans: I haven’t read the book, but it seems to me it doesn’t reinforce certain existing gender realities in certain contexts, as they are clearly and easily identified as toxic by you and other readers in the comments here.

        “A bad man can become a good man, if a woman just loves him hard enough” is a toxic gender trope. It’s essentially what happens with two of the relationships in this books, so yes, it’s reinforced by the book.

        The book doesn’t portray it as a toxic gender trope, it portrays it as a Yay! Happy Ending. Two of them.

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      2. “A bad man can become a good man, if a woman just loves him hard enough” is a toxic gender trope. It’s essentially what happens with two of the relationships in this books, so yes, it’s reinforced by the book.”

        You are vastly mischaracterizing what happens in the book. They don’t “just love him hard enough” — in one case they expel a literal demon from the guy, and in the other case the woman saves the guy’s whole kingdom. If anything, Novik turns gender tropes on their heads by having the women save the day instead of the men.

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      3. Except neither women are trying to make there obnoxious husbands good men – at least for most of the book. The reform of both characters occurs because of an active plan by both women to destroy them (or get them to destroy each other). Miryem’s second thoughts about letting the Staryk king die is because of her concern for her bonds people rather than the king. Neither women reform their husbands by love but by attempts to destroy them.

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      4. What I thought to be problematic in Uprooted was the fact that Novik sticks to a clichéd portrayal of a supposed female-male dichotomy: intuitive vs rational – the crucial difference in both characters’ magic systems.
        Not only that, it portrayed the intuitive as more powerful, possibly feeding into an anti-science ideology.

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  3. I’m encouraged that other people disliked the two abusive relationships ending the way they did. The same thing happened in Uprooted. I’d thought there that Novik was going for some Jane Austen ending, where the man, who had belittled and insulted the heroine throughout the book, had a change of heart and apologized and they lived happily ever after, but he had no change of heart whatsoever and they still lived happily ever after.

    It’s too bad, because I was really liking both books up until that point. I liked the Jewish heroine in Spinning Silver and the eastern European setting in both of them, something you rarely see in fantasy. (I wonder if this was Novik’s answer to some writer — too lazy to look up his name now — who had written that Jews don’t have a tradition of fantasy writing.) And both times the ending disappointed me so much they colored what went before, and I ended up disliking them.

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    1. “but he had no change of heart whatsoever and they still lived happily ever after.”

      I’m typing on my phone, so I won’t rant, but I don’t understand how anyone who read the book could really believe that the two male MCs “had no change of heart whatsoever”. They both changed greatly — one because they got rid of his literal demon, and the other because he learned a great deal about the value of humans in general and Meryam in particular.

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      1. In the Tsarina’s case she is stuck with the Tsar regardless (short of killing him), which is a shitty situation even if he is now demon-free. Also, is not implied that the Tsar is gay? Either way it is more of a horrific marriage of convenience becoming a tolerable marriage of convenience.

        As for the Staryk King, yes that’s more of a change of heart and people re-evaluating what they know about each other’s motives. He’s still an arrogant shit though 🙂

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      2. “Also, is not implied that the Tsar is gay? Either way it is more of a horrific marriage of convenience becoming a tolerable marriage of convenience.“

        No, he falls in love with her. The last time we see them, we are told that he is looking at her as though she is the most wonderful thing in the world.

        “He’s still an arrogant shit, though.”

        Well, Meryam has plenty of ego herself. 😉

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  4. I was pumped by your positive review, but I really disliked the abusive aspects of Uprooted I also found the Dragon something of a dumbass). So while I wouldn’t rule this one out (I liked a lot of stuff in Uprooted), I won’t rush for my library’s copy.

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  5. I have been a fan of Novik’s for years, but I agree that this book was so much amazingly better than her earlier good books that it seems to be in a whole nother realm.

    I have noticed in some of her other writing a tendency for her female characters to fall for icky men who are way more powerful, and although in a way that is what happens here, it’s so much more complex because of the magic, the agency of the two women, the conventions of the fairy tale, and her deliberate messing around with the happy ever after expectation.

    Spinning Silver blew my mind and left me with an amazing book hangover. I don’t agree with everything she presented, but then, I’m not supposed to.

    It really is like her writing went into a whole new gear with this book. I was amazed and the [redacted] reunion at the end made me sob.

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  6. I enjoyed Uprooted – concerns about the abusive relationship notwithstanding – but didn’t actually enjoy Spinning Silver. I felt that the book tried to add too many characters and narratives, to the point where some just felt unnecessary (Wanda most notably), and the repeated adding of new viewpoints later in the book got more than a bit disorienting. It made the book drag for me and I wished the book was more focused upon Miryem and Irina.

    I posted my full review here: https://garik16.blogspot.com/2018/08/scififantasy-book-review-spinning.html

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  7. I really admired Spinning Silver, although maybe it got a little structurally messy in parts?

    I’m catching up on Katherine Arden’s trilogy for her Campbell nom, and there are some very interesting similarities of setting and theme. Although Novik is clearly the more polished writer I think I prefer where Arden has taken her story.
    (Also, I’m pretty sure that Arden should be the front runner for the Campbell. She may not be entirely the finished article but she’s pretty darn close)

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