Mention the phrase “fairy tales” and many familiar images spring to mind – a lost glass slipper, a shiny poisoned apple, an enticing gingerbread house. A spinning wheel usually conjures Sleeping Beauty, but it figures largely in another story as well – Rumplestiltskin.
Author Naomi Novik has written a completely re-imagined version of this tale, called Spinning Silver. Based on Novik’s short story of the same name, the novel has garnered praise from NPR (“One of the year’s strongest fantasy novels”), earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and was called a “[p]erfect tale” by the New York Times Book Review.
This inventive retelling caught my imagination, and two of my co-workers (both fellow Matchmakers and bloggers) were equally enthralled. Since Spinning Silver is told through three points of view (with an attendant chorus of other character voices), my colleagues and I decided to present our readers with three different commentaries on this New York Times bestseller.
So many things in folk tales and fairy tales go in threes, am I right? I particularly enjoyed the three main heroes of Spinning Silver, who are all young women finding their way in the world, in true fairy tale tradition. We first meet Miryem, the daughter and grand-daughter of money-lenders, who sees the wrong around her and uses her grit and intelligence to make it right. In Chapter Two, we meet Wanda, the eldest child in a farmer’s family. Her mother is dead and her father is an abuser. Wanda gladly takes the opportunity to work for Miryem’s family to pay off her family’s debt, and hopes her new independence will lead to better outcomes for herself and her two younger brothers. Finally, there is Irina, the daughter of a duke, who wishes to be valued for herself and not for her family connections. Irina is married off to the tsar by her grasping, ambitious father, and I find her role in the story to be the most fascinating of all.
Three bloggers, three heroes, which one would I be? I choose the calm and quiet Irina. Irina sneaks into the story right in the middle of a chapter, without fanfare, and her connection to the other two is clear from the start. Irina is terrified but undaunted by her marriage to the tsar, and applies her wits to twist her situation to meet her own needs. I could say so much more about Irina, who is both magical and practical and whose unsuspected political acumen leads her to her own triumph. But I don’t want to spoil even the tiniest detail of this enchanting book. Spinning Silver is beautiful and fresh and suffused with female power. It’s a terrific read, especially for winter.
A retelling of Rumpelstiltskin as fresh as new fallen snow. Three girls from vastly different backgrounds, with different hopes and dreams attempt to buck the expectations of their families and society to live their lives the way they want to. Miryem’s ruthlessness is softened by her love and loyalty for her parents and community, Wanda’s despondency is overwhelmed by the faith and strength of character she finds in herself after being given hope, and Irina’s self-pity is cast out by her dedication to duty and her country. Magic, love, and loyalty are woven together effortlessly in Naomi Novik’s newest work, Spinning Silver.
I never liked Rumpletstiltskin as a child, seeing the all various players as greedy, manipulative, cruel, and deceitful (yes, I know that’s a lot of what fairy tales are about, but still…). Naomi Novik has fleshed them out into real people with histories, aspirations, and desires. They have character instead of just being characters. Spinning Silver is steeped in Eastern European and Jewish traditions, giving me a lovely sense of traveling to another realm within the fantasy domains, sampling another culture which is less well-known than the more popular Celtic- and Norse-based storylines.
Slyly inverting the plot, the cast, and the individual images, Novik takes the basic folk elements and polishes them into a glittering narrative as if she herself is spinning straw into gold. This tale, both recognizable and startlingly original, is a multifaceted gem whose vivid voices add depth and richness to a tale that I once thought of as (yes, you saw this coming) grim.
While I did have some trouble tracking all the points of view and various sub-plots, I found this to be favorite read of 2018. And, I love the cover artwork and the last line (no, I won’t reveal it).
Also highly recommended by all three of us – Novik’s first stand-alone novel Uprooted. That book drew its inspiration from Polish folklore, and won the Nebula Award for Best Novel, the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, and the Mythopoeic Award in the category of Adult Literature, and was also nominated for the Hugo Award for best Novel.
Two great companion pieces for Spinning Silver:
The Starlit Wood, a collection of re-imagined fairy tales edited by Dominik Parisian & Navah Wolfe, which is where the short story version of Spinning Silver first appeared.
“Little Man” in Michael Cunningham’s A Wild Swan and Other Tales. A very different take on Rumplestiltskin, indeed.