“Women Writers Wednesday” Meets “Whom I’ve Been Reading”: Naomi Novik

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.

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Whom I’ve Been Reading: Marcus Sedgwick

Although my favorite thing to read is a novel, I also love linked collections of short stories. The forgiving nature of a series of discrete narratives doesn’t make me feel guilty when my schoolwork prevents me from reading a novel straight through.

Sometimes these collections are linked by place; there are many of these. Others are linked by characters, such as Justin Cronin’s Mary and O’Neill. By an object: Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue. Some by concept: Her Infinite Variety by Pamela Rafael Berkman. Sometimes by theme: Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer.

And sometimes a collection is linked by all of these.

Printz Award-winning Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick contains seven linked stories which travel backward in time on a remote and unusual island near the top of the world. They explore the themes of love and sacrifice in the myriad ways that love and sacrifice impress themselves on our lives, sometimes obvious and sometimes not. But the writing is never obvious, never predictable. Sedgwick’s work is often, I think, categorized as YA, but even if you don’t usually read in that category, give this one a try.

Eric and Merle are two characters who orbit each other in time, meeting each other in different ways. Sometimes in love, sometimes bound by a family relationship, sometimes tossed together by external forces, their interactions show the breadth of love and sacrifice. The writing is lush without overpowering the reader. The stories are based on an actual historical painting, Midvinterblot, but everything else in the novel comes from Sedgwick’s own imagination.

Honestly, I don’t know what else to say about this book that won’t give too much of the story away. Aside from the writing being enjoyable even down to the level of the sentence, I love the structure, how each story is illuminated by a subsequent one, how the orbit comes around in such a satisfying way, how the island itself is a character, how the names of the characters evolve, how the dragon flowers on the island and the image of the hare anchor the narrative. There is a hint of the fantastical in this book, but I wouldn’t call it fantasy; magic realism is more its purview.

This novel-in-stories accomplishes what the 1994 film Being Human tried to do but couldn’t. Midwinterblood captures two important facets of the immensity of human experience with crystalline clarity. And like a faceted prism, this story reveals a depth of possibility in every interaction, that we are part of something larger than ourselves. That love and sacrifice cannot be contained. It asks the question, is life truly this rich?

And so, it is.