Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver
Words By Zachary Sanfilippo
Don’t get me wrong. I love a good Game of Thrones novel. By the end, half the characters are dead, most of the reader’s dreams have been shattered, and any of the possible happy endings we would have liked to have seen have been—at all costs—avoided. But every now and again, I miss the days before George R.R. Martin singlehandedly dismembered the fantasy genre. I miss the classic tale of a heroic protagonist set on an impossible quest. I miss the hero actually living to the end of the story, and sometimes, sometimes, I miss the happy ending. It’s at these times I find solace in books like Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik.
Miryem is the daughter of a moneylender who doesn’t so much lend money as give it away. Pushed into desperation, Miryem picks up the trade herself…and finds she’s rather good at it. As her skill and profits continue to grow, however, she draws the attention of an ice king who is convinced her power of turning silver into gold isn’t marketplace cunning but magic. He spirits her away to his icy kingdom where Miryem seems doomed to spend eternity—until, through a witch’s magic portal (and an odd twist of fate), she meets Irina. Irina, a clever yet plain-faced woman of noble birth, finds her future prospects radically improved when Czar Mirnatius himself suddenly proposes marriage to her. Her sudden fortunes have little to do with luck, however; sinister motives lurk. Beneath the Czar’s beautiful façade, a fiery demon smolders, one which desires not only to consume Irina but the entire kingdom of Lithvas. With a little meddling, the two heroines plot to pit their monsters against each other. What results is truly a battle of ice and fire.
There is much praise to heap at Novik’s feet for the creation she has wrought. Even as I sat typing this review, I kept finding more aspects of the novel to love. From the first page, what struck me most was its grace. Beautifully artistic moments, soft and powerful, are interwoven throughout the pages of her story: “A great jagged cluster of frozen spars of ice or clear crystals stood there, shining, and the tiny narrow curling of a frozen stream wound around the base and trickled away as a silver line through the trees.” Such vivid language creates snowflake moments that very much shine in what is by any definition a large book, illuminating details that other authors might simply rush past.
The story was also amazingly refreshing for a genre that has often been criticized for its sterility. With nearly every main character a female and most of the men weak or villainous, Novik literally recasts what it means to be a woman in a fantasy universe. And it works. Spinning Silver brings critical representation for a gender that has traditionally been relegated to the roles of ditsy damsels or only-pretty princesses. Instead of these, we explore the narratives and minds of strong, cunning, determined women facing the worst of adversities. Irina I found especially to fit this mold; in her, Novik echoes the Odysseus character, who relies on nothing but her cunning and wiles to outmaneuver the dangers of court. It was a refreshing take on the traditional fantasy hero who seems to solve most problems by punching his way through them.
Moreover, Novik further expands representation by bringing in her own identity as a Jewish woman. Very rarely have I encountered an intersection between Jewish and fantasy genre literature, and yet Spinning Silver is exactly this. It is impressed upon the reader that Miryem and her family are Jewish, and several times their journeys are made much the harder by their prejudiced neighbors. In fact, in one scene, it’s not ice kings or magic demons but sheer human hatred that threatens Miryem’s life. I found that scene to be one of the most powerful in the book. The result of this unexpected diversity is fresh and original; even as a fantasy veteran, I found myself surprised by the tropes and ideas Novik introduced me to and enamored with the result. Novik’s twists of fantasy were not only well executed but eerily relevant to conversations our society is having today about female representation and the resurgence of anti-Semitism.
What is absent from the novel, however, is what separates the wheat from the chaff in genre fantasy in my opinion: a set of larger conversations rustling beneath the surface. Yes, the novel does explicitly mention anti-Semitism and yes, it does implicitly hint at feminism by its choice in protagonists, but it fails to take these conversations further in meaningful ways. The motif of anti-Semitism, for example, while complicating the plot for the characters in a handful of instances, doesn’t eventually evolve into a powerful, coherent theme which weighs on the novel; Novik seems to relegate this idea to a plot device, useful for forcing tension but not discussed wholeheartedly. She dabbles in feminism with her choice in protagonists, but she only dabbles. Again, this idea is never brought to the fore in the novel for the readers to ponder or discuss. What excites me most when reading a piece is the discussion of the story behind the story, of what the author is truly trying to say with their tale, of how they want their piece to fit into the conversations we’re having today, right now, in the real world.
But, ultimately, Spinning Silver isn’t saying anything more than what’s on the page. I don’t think this is for a lack of skill from Novik; I think she simply isn’t trying to. Unfortunately, this unwillingness to plunge her hands into the snow of her own world occasionally seeps into her characters and colored how much of an investment I experienced reading her story. It was difficult to care about Miryem when she was taken by the Staryk king because any vulnerability I might have empathized with was eclipsed by her sheer icy determination; and the one or two chapters dedicated to developing Mirnatius beyond a flat, static villain completely fell flat. The characters are written to execute an interesting plot and the plot is written to entertain the reader…and that’s about it. Not all novels need to debate larger themes to be successful, of course, but the power of fantasy pillars like Game of Thrones (which Spinning Silver derives clear inspiration from) or even the classic fairytales Novik recalls comes from their inextricable interrogation of the human condition, of things large. Things Novik herself doesn’t seem too concerned with.
All in all, though, Spinning Silver still proves itself to be a worthy entry into the fantasy genre. Its originality and diversity speak well to the times in which we find ourselves and Novik continues to prove her willingness to reimagine the past to serve the present.
Will Spinning Silver be included among the classics? No. But for the deal I struck when I picked it up, I’d say I came away pretty well.