Spinning Silver

I just finished Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, and I can say that it deserves all of the attention and awards that it has garnered. Nice piece of work, and I say that as someone who doesn't often get into the kind of fairy tales and folk tales that the book is rooted in. But although the fairy tale world isn't a place that I'd want to live in long term, Novik has certainly made it a nice place to visit.

Novik has studied fairy/folk tales enough to have mastered their cadence of thought and speech. Folk tales were tales told by and to peasants. Peasants live a lot closer to the survival line than middle-class Americans, and they don't take having food and shelter and clothing and safety for granted. Therefore, when they told stories they focused on mundane details of food and shelter and clothing much more than modern writers because they're listeners needed and wanted to know about these things. This focus on the concrete produces a sort of plodding (and I don't mean that as a putdown) style of writing which is actually one of the book's achievements. This style of writing feels immediately familiar as a fairy tale, even to me a person who doesn't read fairy tales, and successfully removes me from normal reality to a fairy tale place even before any magic has happened.

The second thing that impressed me was how Novik makes the village usurer into sympathetic character who we root for even as she sticks it to the rest of the village and demands her pound of flesh. This is where Novik begins to build on the traditional fairy/folk tale world by introducing and focusing on a character that most fairy/folk tales avoided. We think of usury as the charging of an unconscionable rate of interest, like a loan shark, but fairy/folk tales come from a time where Christians considered the loaning of money for interest to be a sin in and of itself, no matter what the rate of interest. It was the sin of usury. Which didn't mean that good Christians didn't agree to take loans in return for interest; they did. But they left the sin of making those loans to Jews, since the Jews were damned anyway so what difference did it make if they added usury to their sins?

Because Jews and usury were such a distasteful topic, the Christian fairy tale tradition left them out, much like the standard American myth of the cowboy ignores the fact that many of the cowboys were black. But Novik has brought Miryem and her usury back and put them front and center. And all she had to do to make Miryem sympathetic was to show the world from Miryem's point of view. We sympathize with hardship and people being treated unjustly. Novik turns the usual trope of the usurer on its head by showing Miryem and her family suffering hardship and being treated unjustly, and before you know it you're rooting for the usurer. Again, nice work.

Novik uses multiple points of view in Spinning Silver. I know that this is a very familiar technique but I've never used it, not yet anyway, so I paid attention here. I'm marking myself as a noob writer here, I know, but Novik helped me understand how multiple pov lets you write in first person while also communicating information that a single pov, first-person narrator wouldn't know. The great advantage of an omniscient, third person narrator is that they know everything and can therefore tell everything. First-person narrators often don't know everything that's going on. But someone knows it and the multiple pov approach lets those someones tell what they know. I'll have to try it at some point.

Where I think Novik does stumble is over the problem of magic. Magic abounds in the latter part of the book and is a critical component of the plot. The hard part of writing about magic (or scifi technology) is to keep the rules controlling the magic straight. To my reading, Novik fails to do this, somewhat spectacularly. It didn't ruin the book for me because by that time I was so invested in the characters that I just want my damned, fairy tale ending and I didn't care that much about how Novik got me there. But, unfortunately, she got me there by having magic work in ways at the end of the book that violate the rules of magic that she established earlier in the book. Oh well. It's a flaw in the book but if I work hard and am very lucky then someday maybe I can write a story as flawed, but as good, as Spinning Silver.


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