Spinning Silver: From Short Story to Novel

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.

photo of snow field near trees
Photo by Burak K on Pexels.com

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.

Rumple

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.

2016 Reading Review

Another great year of books is behind us.  As usual, I read a lot of YA fantasy, but I also read a good mix of other stuff, too (partly thanks to the bimonthly GeekyNerdy Book Club).

This year I read 35 books and graphic novels (not counting re-reads).  Here are some of my favorites:

YA fantasy/sci-fi:

Indie fantasy:

Non-fiction:

There are also a few other genre books that really stood out, but I haven’t gotten around to reviewing them yet, so I’m making some space for them here.

Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology

23437156This was hands-down my favorite series of 2016.  I wrote previously about the first book, Six of Crows, and I’m now here to tell you that the sequel, Crooked Kingdom, is an immensely satisfying conclusion.  The characters are still amazing, and continue to be challenged in new, different ways.  The fantasy aspects also continue to be developed.

It’s not an entirely happy ending, but there was never going to be a perfectly happy ending to this story, and honestly it was happier than I was expecting.  I’m even considering buying the hardcover set, which I never do, because the books themselves have the pages edged in color: black for the first and red for the second.

If you like YA fantasy, grey characters, and complex plots, this one is for you.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

There has been so much buzz around this book since22544764 it was published last year (it was nominated for a Hugo and won the Nebula), and I was not disappointed at all.  The story is a kind of original fairy tale, eastern-European inspired, and walks the line between YA and regular adult fantasy.  The main character Agnieszka is “taken” by the local lord, called the Dragon, and is eventually trained by him as a magical apprentice to help defeat the evil Wood.

There’s plenty of magic, and although the magic system is not well-defined, the book does give us an interesting sense of the different methods of working it (the Dragon is more precise and scientific, while Agnieszka works more based on feel and intuition).  There’s also a great female friendship at the core of the story, and some romance—it wasn’t my favorite ever, but I thought it was done well for the story.

The Wood is a surprisingly good villain, and the story’s resolution seemed very fitting.  Even after everything that’s happened, Agnieska can still empathize with the Wood and tries to work out a solution for everyone’s benefit (it’s very Wonder Woman ^_^).

Also, I pictured the Dragon as looking like Rumpelstiltskin from OUAT, so there’s that.

Rumple

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

25372801I’ve been reading CJA for years, as one of the founders of the website io9.com; her movie reviews are the most entertaining I’ve ever read (some of my favorites are Transformers: ROTF, Gods of EgyptThe Force Awakens, The Martian, and The Huntsman: Winter’s War).

I also loved her short story (and Naomi Novik’s) in our recent GeekyNerdy Book Club selection, The Starlit Wood.  So it’s safe to assume that I love her writing style, and it definitely carried me through this story, which was wonderful and memorable, though perhaps not perfect.

A witch girl and a tech-genius boy grow up together as school outcasts, grow apart, then meet again as adults, which is convenient because one or possibly both of them need to save the world from near-imminent destruction. I loved that there is both fantasy and science fiction mashed up here.  It was fascinating to me that the witches would have destroyed humanity to save the planet, while the scientists were willing to risk destroying the planet to save humans.  It was nice to see scientists wrestling with ethical questions, too.

Overall, this book is a little weird, which is why I loved it.  The narrative is a bit uneven, but you just kinda have to go along for the ride.

Here’s to more great books in the new year.  What books did you enjoy most in 2016?

GeekyNerdy Book Club: The Starlit Wood

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The cover is beautiful, and even has some raised details.

Welcome back to the bi-monthly GNBC; this time our selection was The Starlit Wood, a collection of short fairy tale retellings.  Check out GeekyNerdyGirl’s original post here.

I finished all the stories, but it was a near thing.  It’s been a while since I’ve read short stories, so I really enjoyed getting back to that.  But the content of these stories was so diverse in terms of tone, style, setting, and fantasy and sci-fi elements that it was very hard to read more than one story in a sitting; I’d get really into a story, then have to completely switch gears to start the next one.  It’s a great collection, but it made for a rather long read.

There are few things that I love to read more than fairy tale retellings.  I took a whole seminar on fantasy in children’s literature during university, and the first thing we looked at was fairy tales.  These types of stories have a universality to them that I think explains their popularity across cultures and throughout the ages.  Some of the stories here hew closer to the originals, and some I really struggled to figure out what the original tale was.  (The authors’ notes at the end of the stories were wonderful!)

There were several Westerns, several set in other countries, several in space, and of course some in that took place in that typical “magical realism” fairy tale setting.  I want to pick out a few to talk about more specifically.

The two stories that I found the funniest were by “Even the Crumbs were Delicious” by Daryl Gregory (a Hansel and Gretel tale involving a druggie and his lickable wallpaper with drugs) and “The Super Ultra Duchess of Fedora Forest” by Charlie Jane Anders (an obscure Grimm Brothers tale turned into “a kind of Adventure Time fanfic”).

The most depressing stories actually came towards the front of the book: “Underground” by Karin Tidbeck and “Familiaris” by Genevieve Valentine.  Both of these had a lot to say about the state of women in fairy tales, and it’s pretty bleak.  They paint some interesting parallels to the state of women in modern life: no agency, trapped in their roles, expected to bear children they may not even want.  I appreciated that they made this think about that but whoa, they were downers.

My favorites turned out to be ones that didn’t deviate too much from fairy tale territory, but still managed to breathe new life into the original tale.  “Seasons of Glass and Iron” (Amal El-Mohtar) is actually a mash-up to two tales, brilliantly done, that ends with the heroines saving each other by pointing out the truth of each other’s stories.  “The Briar and the Rose” (Marjorie Liu) likewise has two great female protagonists that help each other.  And anchoring the book is “Spinning Silver” by Naomi Novik, a nice take on “Rumpelstiltskin”; if you only read one story from the book, I’d recommend this one…then go read her original fairy tale, Uprooted.

There were several other good ones as well (shout out to “Penny for a Match, Mister?” by Garth Nix–one of the Westerns–and “The Other Thea” by Theodora Goss).  If you like fairy tale retellings, I think you will enjoy this collection also.  One nice thing about collections like this is that you can sample some new authors in addition to ones you’ve already read and loved.  I definitely want to check out more works by several of these authors.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about our GeekNerdy Book Club selections this year; stay tuned for more in 2017.