Naomi Novik’s new fantasy novel Spinning Silver is a perfectly-constructed wintry escape from July

I mean, what you’re escaping to is death and fear and destruction and love, but the worldbuilding is particularly impressive.

One of the benefits of growing older is that you collect authors as you go. Instead of slumping through an inexhaustible backlog great authors compiled before I was born, I now have a handful whose product I can pick up fresh, confident that the prose is clear, the characters well-developed, and the story twisty and powerful. Naomi Novik is one of those authors.

Spinning Silver Book Cover Rumpelstiltskin
Oh, also the main character turns silver to gold. Left that out.

 

I read Uprooted in one cold January day and fell deeply in love with its expert tension-building, its magic-for-a-steep-price, and the strange, pleasing depth of the world Novik builds out of scraps of folktales. Her talents are on display in the not-really-sequel out now, Spinning Silver. She draws from Rumpelstiltskin (a tiny folktale you should definitely read first), but it’s not a fairytale retelling — classifying it as such takes away from Novik’s creativity. She uses Rumpelstiltskin as the spiritual base of the book, but the folktale only gives to the novel what onions give to a beef stew — a great stock, an important savor permeating the whole, but most of the nutritive value is added by Novik herself. It’s not a sly retelling but a brand new story, influenced by but not indebted to its source.

Spinning Silver centers on three women who are very similar, but are in very different circumstances. All three are marginalized, and the book is the story of how all three found themselves in an intolerable situation and refused to continue tolerating it. It’s a story of how they got angry. It’s a story of how they got revenge. Miryem is the daughter of a Jewish moneylender, Irina is the daughter of a Duke, and Wanda is the poor daughter of an abusive drunk. Their paths intertwine throughout the story, and I don’t want to get bogged down on plot here (it’s Naomi Novik — the plot is good, trust), but I do want to look at her worldbuilding.

I’m not even sure it’s named for the first part of the book, but Lithvas is a vaguely Slavic non-place, a land where the winters have been growing worse and worse, a land where sometimes a strange silver road can be glimpsed through the trees, the road of the Staryk, people of ice and hardness who come off the road to hunt treasure, to hunt gold, to hunt people. The first 100 pages of the book, there’s not even a whole lot of magic. It’s Miryem collecting debts and logging them in her book, Irina preparing to be married off to the tsar, and Wanda trying to protect her small raw nub of a family from any further depredations of her drunk, greedy father (she most especially does not want to be sold in marriage for a few goats). The first fourth of the book is filled with the concerns of a vaguely post-Medieval Renaissance town, with weirdness peeping out here and there through the pages like the Staryk road through the trees. It’s people worrying about their crops, worrying about their futures, trading in the market, cooking food for dinner. Novik builds her character’s lives on a broad, heavy base of normalcy so that when Miryem gets whisked away by the Staryk king to his glass mountain in the middle of a timeless frozen waste, it doesn’t feel fanciful. The description of fishing in the ice pools for silver fish and of gathering sweet fruit from snowtrees in the mountain’s core mirrors the more mundane growing of rye and boiling of kasha already described earlier. Novik’s attention to the “factual” underpinning of her world gives the fantastic aspects a better foundation to fly from. If one of the characters needed a weapon (they don’t, at least not a conventional one) they might get a magic sword, but they wouldn’t have just plucked it out of a stone. They would have saved for it, brought the strange metal to an accomplished smith, and spent hours honing and oiling the blade. Novik shows the work that goes into achievement, even in a fantasy setting.

This book is great. It has strong, swift prose, appealing characters, and a plot so quick and twisty that, at the end of it, I’m worried that I cheated myself by reading too fast, like scarfing down a particularly amazing sandwich. What really stands out to me though is Novik’s skill with detail. She supplies not too much, and not too little, and equally when describing workaday and fantastical events. She goes into the nuts and bolts of it, and this attention gives a reality and weight to her work that is one of its chiefest pleasures.

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