I loved SPINNING SILVER. And it's funny, because I only felt lukewarm about her previous book, UPROOTED. Don't get me wrong - UPROOTED wasn't a bad book, and I still occasionally have nightmares about heart-trees, but it didn't wow me the way I expected it to based on all the preliminary reviews, either.
SPINNING SILVER reads like Naomi Novik saw my review for UPROOTED, said to herself, "Aha," and then set about to write a story that personally addressed each and every one of my complaints. UPROOTED was slow to start; SPINNING SILVER grabbed me from the beginning and wouldn't let go. UPROOTED had a very dull heroine who ends up in a very dull love story. SPINNING SILVER has a huge cast, mostly of strong female characters, and the main love story is unconventional and fraught with tension (and doesn't really come to fruition until the end). UPROOTED has a fairy-tale vibe without any clear parallels, whereas SPINNING SILVER very obviously borrows elements from The Glass Mountain, The Snow Queen, and, of course, Rumpelstiltskin. In short, SPINNING SILVER is amazing.
It's difficult to describe the story because there is so much going on, in terms of plot and in terms of the large cast of characters. The main character is really a girl named Miryem, the daughter of a Jewish moneylender who ends up taking up his mantle when he proves too soft-hearted to carry out his work. Actually, that's another thing - I loved how Novik incorporated Jewish culture into this fairytale retelling, especially since the Grimm tales really aren't so kind to Jews. One need only look at the tale, Jew Among the Thorns, to see the rampant antisemitism. So it was great to see the greedy money-lender stereotype turned on its head, as Miryem is portrayed as fierce and capable and willing to do anything to see her family through the cold and cruel winters.
Her ability to turn a profit makes her an enemy of most people in her village, except for a girl named Wanda who Miryem's family ends up taking in as a servant to pay off her father's debt. Wanda is the daughter of an abusive alcoholic and initially, while she sees her job only as a respite from beatings and a means of getting food into her mouth, she starts to truly love Miryem's family and appreciate Miryem's strength. Wanda has two brothers named Sergey and Stepon, who also have POVs later on in the story. They are just as abused and desperate as Wanda, but have cores of strength, as well.
Then there's the daughter of a duke named Irina, whose father buys fairy silver from Miryem, when her money-making abilities catch the eye of the local fairies, the Staryk, who only live in the cold. He uses the silver jewelry as part of his daughter's trousseau, and the magical jewelry enchants anyone who looks upon it into thinking that Irina, who also has fairy blood, is beautiful. She is married as a result to a local tsar she has known since childhood, a powerful man of fire who is possessed by a demon. He wants to devour Irina, to steal her magic, unless she can offer him something better.
One of the things I loved about SPINNING SILVER is the interconnectedness and the focus on relationships. All the disparate storylines connect, sometimes in surprising ways, and it was so satisfying as a reader to see everything neatly come together. I also really appreciated how fleshed-out each character was, even the villains (who aren't as villainous as they initially appear), and how much time Novik seemed to have spent developing each character to be their own person. The ways that they interact with one another are so nuanced, platonic and romantic relationships both handled just as lovingly (which isn't always the case). And all the women characters are so strong.
It isn't often that I find a book that is basically perfect, which is why I tend to be somewhat stingy with my five-star ratings. But SPINNING SILVER is that book, and it deserves each one of those stars. I didn't think this book could possibly have a happy ending, but Novik surprised me there, too.
5 out of 5 stars