Recent Reading: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Wow, Spinning Silver is just perfectly put together. All of you who said you thought it was Novik’s best until Scholomance, yes, I agree, it’s just amazingly elegant.

I didn’t like it nearly as well, however.

At the beginning, Miryem is not remotely as appealing as El. When Spinning Silver opened, I sympathized with Miryem, I even agreed with her point of view and thought she was perfectly justified, but I didn’t like her at all. It took me a long, long time to like her. In contrast, I absolutely loved El from just about the first moment. I see why some of you said they’re kind of similar. They kind of are, in a sense. But El is (extremely) prickly, but oriented right from the beginning toward helping others. In contrast, Miryem is coldly willing to hurt others, and they may deserve it, but on the other hand, they may not. Wanda did not deserve to be treated the way Miryem thought she was treating her.

Then we shift to Wanda’s pov and instantly I was much, much more engaged. This is because we see that actually Miryem was literally an answer to Wanda’s prayers. It’s also because Wanda is a much, much nicer person and also (I’m getting ahead of myself here) watching Wanda develop a relationship with her brothers, the way they gradually came together into a family, that was great.

Anyway, after Wanda becomes a pov character, we shift to Irina’s pov and at first I found her both boring and also disconcertingly passive, so that was two out of three points of view that I didn’t much care for.

Then the Staryk king reluctantly marries Miryem and everything starts to click into place. Not only intellectually, all the emotionally important threads start to weave together as well. I started to like the story much better. I kept kind of thinking of questions Miryem might usefully ask the Staryk king, but fine, I really loved how she solved the problem of needing to turn three storerooms of silver coins into gold coins – I loved everything about that, including the way Miryem suddenly orients emotionally away from herself, toward that Staryk child. That wasn’t the first nice thing she did, but it was a much deeper emotional shift. 

Irina turns out, rather unexpectedly, to be clever and determined, and determined not just to save herself but to save her country. Wanda and her brothers pull together under adversity. The Staryk king realizes he direly underestimated Miryem, though they aren’t anywhere near understanding each other.  That splendid little cottage takes a central role that is amazingly cool in every possible way. The initial victory leads to terrible situations all around and we find out, not at all to the reader’s surprise, that Mirnatius, the tsar, is absolutely a victim in all this, in the very worst situation of them all.

Then that initial victory is undone and everything begins to click into place for the real victory, neat and inevitable as a puzzle toy clicking together, everyone trading the action back and forth, and almost everyone winds up just where they should be. A highly satisfying ending to a truly elegant story.

Further notes:

–I personally wouldn’t have minded another scene with Mirnatius, though I’m not sure where I would have put it, so I see why it’s not there, and anyway it’s clear he’s going to be fine.

–I was thoroughly pleased by how a couple of very minor secondary characters developed, especially Miryem’s grandfather and Irina’s father.

–This may have been the single book that has ever best pulled off a whole lot of pov characters. I mean, pulled that off for me personally. There are at least six pov characters and all of them worked for me, even Mirnatius.

–To me, the setting felt far, far more integral to the story than the setting in Uprooted. In that one, every single reference to Eastern European food or whatever made me blink in faint surprise: Oh, right, Eastern Europe. Not here. Here, the setting just saturated the story.

–I enjoyed the resonance with every fairy tale in creation. By no means a retelling of any fairy tale, there are nevertheless echoes of Rumpelstiltskin, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Hansel and Gretel – at least. Those are the ones I spotted, but I wouldn’t even be surprised if I missed a couple more.

Spinning Silver worked for me a lot better than Uprooted, even though it took me a long time to like Miryem. I think this is a story that’s going to work best for me the second time I read it, not the first, when it was entirely the other way around for Uprooted.

However, there’s no way this one unseats the Scholomance trilogy in my heart. Absolutely not. Elegant as Spinning Silver may be, I think the Scholomance trilogy is very nearly as elegant, and El is going to be my very favorite unlikeable protagonist until the heat death of the universe.

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9 thoughts on “Recent Reading: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik”

  1. Agreed. I liked both Spinning Silver and Scholomance (and Uprooted) quite a lot. But El in Scholomance is much more relatable than Miriam and it’s just more fun to follow El along. So Scholomance is, for me, going to be an enduring comfort re-read and Silver is not.

    BTW, it’s interesting that El is supposed to be an unlikeable protagonist, because I liked her almost immediately. Also, Scholomance is definitely a comfort read, despite its horror trappings; everyone survives!

  2. One of the really fascinating things about El is that she’s super, super unlikeable in the STORY universe, but at the same time highly likeable for the READER. Novik pulls that off perfectly. I’ve certainly seen other authors try to do that, but without pulling it off nearly as well.

    I realize I keep beating this drum, but for me Tremaine in The Fall of Ile-Rien is similar in this specific way (and dissimilar in most other ways). She’s harder to like in the story-world, but easy for the reader to love.

  3. Kim–
    The thing to be aware of about Scholomance is that *everything* is foreshadowing, even minor events like metaphysical chocolate cake (which is funny and I noticed on reread.)

  4. Well, if someone had mentioned the metaphysical chocolate cake to me, that would have gotten me to read it already!

  5. Kim, R Morgan, I look forward very much to hearing what you both think of the Scholomance trilogy! With or without metaphysical chocolate cake!

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