Back in December 2016, I read a nice compilation of fairy tale retellings called The Starlit Wood, which was anchored by Naomi Novik’s Rumpelstiltskin tale “Spinning Silver.” It was one of my favorite stories from the collection. So I was a bit confused when I heard last year that Novik had a new novel out, called…Spinning Silver.
I read the book’s description and realized it was the same story: the short story had been reworked into a novel. This was fascinating to me! It made me even more interested in picking up the novel. (I had also enjoyed Novik’s original fairy tale novel Uprooted.)
The short story was kind of a twisted take on Rumpelstiltskin (hence the title, referencing the original tale where the miller’s daughter must spin straw into gold). Miryem is a young Jewish moneylender who turns silver to gold for an elf-like Staryk using her business sense. There is no overt magic in this version, and Miryem ends by outsmarting the Staryk and taking charge of their bargain.
The first quarter or so of the novel is this same story, sometimes even using the exact same text. But at the end of it, Miryem and the Staryk make a different bargain in this version, and the rest of the novel spins out from there. It actually ends up being pretty epic, with the fate of two kingdoms at stake.
My first hint of differences came with the inclusion of new viewpoints in the novel. Wanda, a village laborer, and Irina, the duke’s daughter, join Miryem to give a trio of female viewpoints that form the backbone of the story. All three women are struggling to gain control of their own fates, rather than being controlled by men (fathers, husbands, the Staryk, the tsar).
Eventually we get even more viewpoints: Wanda’s brother, Irina’s old nursemaid, and even the tsar himself. Though the chapters aren’t labeled with the narrator’s name, I was always able to tell who was speaking within a sentence or two, so well-defined were the characters.
I was intrigued by the way Miryem and Irina have parallel storylines, the differences informed by their different religions and stations in life, yet they are tied together by their shared sense of justice and strong wills. The book makes an interesting distinction between justice and fairness. The idea of “fair value” comes up frequently, mainly from the Staryk, which reminded me of Lundy’s world from the Wayward Children novella In An Absent Dream. But even if a bargain is fair, it still might not be right; Miryem is concerned with both these things.
I also liked the way Miryem and Wanda gather a blended family around themselves. It was wonderful to see how a family was created by all the members giving from the heart, whether it was reciprocated or not.
Though there are further hints of the Rumpelstiltskin story throughout (the power of names, bargaining away a child), Spinning Silver moves away from the original tale to incorporate other fairy tale tropes, like a mother’s spirit in a tree and a cottage that exists in two worlds. It also brings in some arcane magic as a method of turning silver to gold. It almost seemed closer to an original fairy tale in an Eastern European tradition, like Uprooted. I actually think I liked it more than Uprooted, because I liked the Staryk and the tsar better than the Dragon, and I really enjoyed how incredibly understated the romance was.
And I guess it’s kinda fitting that I had pictured the Dragon as looking like Rumpelstiltskin…
In short, I would recommend both “Spinning Silver” and Spinning Silver, especially if you love fairy tale retellings; each has its own strengths, but the excellent characters, themes, and writing they have in common.