The more I think about Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver, the more I love it. It’s a book that kept me from sleeping (just one more chapter! just one more page!), surprised me with interesting anti-heros (and anti-villains!), and opened a door to a conversation about anti-semitism.
Yes, the thematic backdrop of anti-semitism…in YA fantasy.
From the publisher:
Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders, but her father’s inability to collect his debts has left his family on the edge of poverty—until Miryem takes matters into her own hands. Hardening her heart, the young woman sets out to claim what is owed and soon gains a reputation for being able to turn silver into gold. When an ill-advised boast draws the attention of the king of the Staryk—grim fey creatures who seem more ice than flesh—Miryem’s fate, and that of two kingdoms, will be forever altered. She will face an impossible challenge and, along with two unlikely allies, uncover a secret that threatens to consume the lands of humans and Staryk alike.
It’s a great take on the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale of old, updated with heroines who are clever but not beautiful, who have to make tough choices that, depending on where you’re sitting, either save your realm or doom your people to genocide.
Hence the not-sleeping page turning. The stakes are high.
And the three villains are low. Or are they?
What Novik accomplishes so beautifully in Spinning Silver is providing something new within the familiar. Take the king of the Staryk, for example. He’s a murderous brute…maybe. He’s definitely not your typical, outrageously attractive Fae lord whose smolder rivals Dr. Bravestone’s. He’s not charming or nice or noble or hunky. As the story progressed, I kept waiting for some romantic feelings to develop between Miryem and the Staryk king—it’s such a common trope in YA fantasy. The longer they despised each other, the more I liked them both. It felt more real.
Then there’s the tsar, or Chief Villain #2. Young and attractive and petulant, he’s easy to dislike. He’s the perfect foil for the story’s second heroine, Irina. As the duke’s shy and plain daughter, Irina’s future is uncertain—she can be essentially sold in marriage for political advantage or end up a spinster depending on the good graces of a much younger half-brother. When she ends up married to the tsar (thanks, Miryem!), Irina has to fight for her life. But, perhaps because she is so used to being overlooked herself, she sees things—and let’s call it like it is, demons—that others don’t. Real demons and those pesky emotional demons from past torments and sorrows.
Believe it or not, there’s a third plot woven with Miryem’s and Irina’s. Wanda, poor and motherless and bullied by her alcoholic father, begins working for Miryem’s family to pay off a debt. For the first time since her mother died, Wanda experiences human dignity and respect from Miryem’s family. Human flourishing follows (after some truly dreadful experiences, but still, it happens).
You might suspect that Wanda’s alcoholic father is Chief Villain #3. He certainly qualifies. But sadly, the townspeople earn this honor. They borrow money from Miryem’s father and then use their own prejudices as an excuse not to repay it. They use whatever authority or power they have to lord it over those with less or no power. They are unkind and uncharitable and eager to mete out their own version of justice—as long as it isn’t turned back around on them.
I was talking with my husband about this book and casually mentioned that Miryem’s family were money lenders. He looked at me askance and then explained that he remembered hearing “money lending Jews” used as a slur. The fact that it was not uncommon back in the day for Jews to be money lenders is perhaps where this stereotype and prejudice comes from, and why using the background of anti-semitism in the book is so powerful.
Whether the Jewish community or a terrifying fae king, the book does a wonderful job showing that people and their motives are not what they may seem on the surface or through the lens of our own experiences. One of my favorite reads in 2020 so far.