Sometimes you read a book that defies some of the more basic “rules” of writing, or one that’s outside your usual category, but it works for you in so many ways that you can’t help but tell people about it. Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver, which I just finished reading on vacation last week, embodies both of these for me.
This book follows Novik’s Uprooted in what I hope will become a series of standalone novels. Both these excellent stories take familiar western European fairy tales and then transform them into an uncanny valley version of themselves, blow them up and out into something so original that you might not recognize the source material in it. Whereas Uprooted played fast and loose with “Beauty and the Beast” in a medieval Slavic world with magic, Spinning Silver borrows key elements of “Rumpelstiltskin” and drops them in the middle of…Russia perhaps? At the time of horse-drawn wagons, the Jews as money-lenders in walled communities inside of walled towns, the tsar and the boyars.
And how does this story break conventional wisdom? It’s a multi-POV novel where all POVs are told from the first person, and new perspectives come into the story late in the novel. Yet all the voices are distinctive and clear, and they all enhance the story well. This is a novel where marriages are strategic and the three young women at the center of the story grow and think and create agency within the limits of their world and the situations, magical or mundane, they find themselves in.
Spinning Silver falls squarely in the YA category, which I often enjoy but which is not usually my very first choice. It doesn’t shy away from genuine violence now and then, but those scenes are vital and artfully crafted, and I could easily recommend this book to any sharp reader as young as late middle school. If I could find a way to weave it into the curriculum for one of my high school classes, I would. The writing is gorgeous, and the structure of the novel really lends itself to deconstructive analysis as a model for what works.
And for those of you who like a long book for your money, this one will do — without feeling like its pacing drags. You should also look into Uprooted if you like fairy tales, and if you like alt-history, Novik’s Temeraire series is particularly charming: the Napoleonic Wars fought from the sky on the backs of dragons.
Spinning Silver won the 2019 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel and was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel (also in 2019). I am just not remotely surprised.