Set in Lithvas, a fictional country in Eastern Europe, Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver follows the story of a moneylender’s daughter as she strives to survive in medieval England. Living in abject poverty, Miryem decides to take over her father’s failing money-lending business. She is quite successful at it that soon she attracts the attention of the Staryk king (the king of winter), who wants Miryem to turn his silver into gold.
Spinning Silver is ambitious in both its writing style and its themes. Novik heightens the plot of the classic German folktale, Rumpelstiltskin, by playing with fairytale tropes—romance, fantasy, curses, magic, monsters—and deconstructing them by writing a more involved and complex story. Novik’s narrative skillfully weaves reality and fantasy, forging a path where one can easily identify with the novel. Readers will recognize each characters as they chart their own fate and overcome obstacles such as abusive relationships, persecution, social prejudices, and poverty. Spinning Silver employs multiple point of views, and Novik manages to give each of the characters an original voice.
At its core, the novel emphasizes the strength, intellect, and tenacity of women facing insurmountable adversities. Three of the main voices in the book are women—Miryem (the main character), Wanda (daughter of a farmworker who ends up working for Miryem), and Irina (the tsarina, who married a tsar, Minartius, with a demon trapped inside him). The common thread among the heroines are their struggle with social restrictions and expectations based on race, class, and gender. Remarkably, Novik lets the heroines be strong, bright, and beautiful as well as be vulnerable, devious, and as equally monstrous as the villains.
Interestingly, Novik compels her readers to empathize with both the heroines and the villains by portraying the latter as people (or creatures), who, like the heroines, are merely trying to survive.
Novik’s Spinning Silver is a fantasy novel full of nuanced ideas that highlight our complexities. Novik might have set her novel in an imaginary world and peppered it with fantastical elements, but it deftly reflects our own.