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.