Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik (Paperback, Publisher: Pan Macmillan UK; 16 May 2019; 480 pages. eBook version courtesy of Random House for the Hugo Award panel of the 77th Worldcon, Dublin.)

There are authors whose restraint, clear vision and graceful expression make their novels a quiet joy to read. I have discovered another one, wading through the books shortlisted for the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Novel: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik. Voting for the award closed on July 31, 2019. Novik’s competition for the award are:
Record of a Spaceborn Few – Wayfarers 3, by Becky Chambers
Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente
The Calculating Stars – A Lady Astronaut Novel, by Mary Robinette Kowal
Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse
Revenant Gun, by Yoon Ha Lee

Spinning Silver is a Fantasy novel that is a little bit reminiscent of Rumpelstiltskin, a fairytale first published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. The fairytale is about a woman being able to spin straw into gold but making a deal with an evil being to be able to do so. But in this novel, “spinning straw into gold” is merely a metaphor for getting ahead in business and escaping from poverty and oppression. Novik’s novel is detailed and earthily realistic in a way that makes even the most fantastical elements seem plausible.

In the original fairy tale documented by the brothers Grimm, the story was called The Miller’s Daughter, and the wicked creature that she promises her first child to, in return for being able to spin straw into gold is simply called the “Little Man” or the “Manikin”. Later he does a little dance of rage and calls himself “Rumpelstilz”. (The Fairy Tales of Grimm and Andersen – Illustrated by Anne Anderson, Collins & Glasgow, Collins Clear Type Press, no date, presumably 1923/1924)

I have to give Novik credit for her superb writing. While depicting terrifying events and extremely high character stakes, she does this with well-chosen, simple, slightly old-fashioned words. She has created a seamless and appealing secondary world set in some ancient time,  somewhere in the Ukraine perhaps, judging by a word she uses, “Staryk”, which means “old man” in Ukranian.

Illustration by Anne Anderson of the miller’s daughter – who is the moneylender’s daughter in Spinning Silver – and her father, begging the king for mercy. (The Fairy Tales of Grimm and Andersen – Illustrated by Anne Anderson, Collins & Glasgow, Collins Clear Type Press, no date, presumably 1923/1924)

Terrifying but beautiful

Every image of the snow, of the village, of the family, the spinner of gold, “Miryam”, and the thoughts of the first person narrators, are beautifully expressed. It’s like a lovely piece of fabric that unfolds as you turn over each page, and, since the antagonists in the book are terrifying, it makes for a thrilling contrast. Critics have called this work beautiful, gorgeous, cool, mysterious and masterly. That it is. There’s something to be said for choosing your words carefully, rather than just letting loose.

“Why are we stopping?” I asked finally. Oleg didn’t answer me: he slumped in his seat as though he slept. A chill wind rose, murmuring against my back, creeping over the edges of the sledge and wriggling its way through the covers to get to my skin. Blue shadows stretched out over the snow, cast by a pale thin light shining somewhere behind me, and as my breath rose in quick clouds around my face, the snow crunched: some large creature, picking its way towards the sleigh. I swallowed and drew my cloak around me, and then I summoned up all the winter-cold courage I’d ever found and turned. (p. 75)

The cold is a sign of a “Staryk” being near, and the Staryks have some characteristics of the “Night Walkers” as depicted by George R.R. Martin, and Oprichniki (Russian: опри́чник), meaning “man aside”. An oprichnik was a member of the organization known as the known as the Oprichnina (1565-1572), an organization established by Tsar Ivan the Terrible to govern the division of Russia and act as suppressor of the internal enemies of the Tsar through murder, rape, torture, terror and theft. This novel is not about a small Rumpelstiltskin being wicked and desiring an innocent daughter, but rather about a complicated power play between women, each with their own high stakes, and those who oppose or hurt them.

The Staryks are the opposite, in every human aspect, of people. They are the embodiment of the cold, unfeeling and calculating personality that Miryam discovers in herself when she has to make a plan to save her family from starvation. She has a bit of the Staryks in her soul.

“He smiled at me, still holding my hand; he smiled at me, and then turned to the driver and said, “Go!” and with a lurch we were onto the white road; the king’s road, Shofer had called it; the Staryk road I had known and glimpsed in the dark woods all my life. It was running on ahead of us as if it had always been there, and stretched away behind us too, as far as I could see, an endless vaulted passageway. The strange unearthly-white trees lined it on both sides, their limbs hung with clear ice-drops and white leaves, and the surface of it was smooth blue-white ice, clouded. The sleigh flew over it, and all at once a sudden strong smell of pine needles and sap came into my nose, a desperate struggling of life. Through the canopy of white branches overhead, the sky began to change: the grey flushed slowly through on one side with blue, and on the other with golden and orange, a summer evening’s sky over winter woods, and I knew that we’d slid out of his kingdom and back into my own world.” (p. 333)

I enjoyed page after page so much that I did not think ahead about how the story would turn out. After all, making deals with evil beings seldom has good results – but in this instance the road to the conclusion (even if it is a glittering “Staryk road”) is so well written that it is its own reward.

About Naomi Novik

Naomi Novik (Image: Pan Macmillan)

Random House, one of the Big Five publishers, published this in paperback probably because they recognized a mature and skilled author. This is Novik’s tenth novel out of eleven. I like her whimsical biography on the Pan Macmillan website:

“Naomi Novik is the acclaimed author of the Temeraire series and standalone fairytale fantasy Uprooted. She has been nominated for the Hugo Award and has won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, as well as the Locus Award for Best New Writer and the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel. She is also the author of the graphic novel Will Supervillains Be on the Final? Fascinated with both history and legends, Novik is a first-generation American raised on Polish fairy tales and stories of Baba Yaga. Her own adventures include pillaging degrees in English literature and computer science from various ivory towers, designing computer games, and helping to build the Archive of Our Own for fanfiction and other fanworks.

Novik is a co-founder of the Organization for Transformative Works. She lives in New York City with husband and Hard Case Crime founder Charles Ardai and their daughter, Evidence, surrounded by an excessive number of purring computers.”

Novels by Naomi Novik

  • Uprooted
  • Spinning Silver
  • His Majesty’s Dragon
  • Throne of Jade
  • Black Powder War
  • Empire of Ivory
  • Victory of Eagles
  • Tongues of Serpents
  • Crucible of Gold
  • Blood of Tyrants
  • League of Dragons


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✓ No attribution required.

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