Wednesday 5 June 2019

Spinning Silver — Review

There is much to admire in Spinning Silver, and we can understand the evident passion that many
Image via
readers have for Naomi Novik’s latest novel.

For one, Novik’s deconstruction, reimagining, and reconstruction of Rumpelstiltskin is both insightful and inventive. The systemic misrepresentation of non-majoritarian religious groups in folk tales – and the antisemitism of Rumpelstiltskin in particular – needs to be challenged. Novik provides an interesting approach, reframing these folk narratives with point-of-view characters who belong to marginalized groups.

Additionally, the animistic universe depicted in Spinning Silver provides an opportunity for an environmental metaphor that Novik weaves into the narrative carefully and subtly. Environmental issues (destruction of habitat) drive one of the major sources of conflict in the novel, and provide motivation for the primary antagonists.

Issues of race, gender, and environmental degradation are weighty subjects for a fairy tale, and could have made the book feel didactic. But Novik creates a narrative that feels natural and timely.

However, the book is not always fun to read. There is a ponderous, at times leaden, nature to the prose, which is often weighed down by excessive dependent clauses.

It will seem overwritten to some readers, like the author was less focused on readability than on crafting rococo sentences.

On the other hand, this excessive (posed) artfulness does have an upside. In some moments Novik hits the nail on the head with sublimely quotable sentence, like “Anger was a fire in a grate, and I'd never had any wood to burn. Until now, it seemed.” Some readers will find these gems worth the slog, while others are likely to grind their teeth at the paragraphs-upon-paragraphs of self indulgence.

Some of us felt that the three main narrators – Miryem, Wanda and Irina – all speak with a very similar, and at times condescending, voice. For example, the reader is often told how to feel, which can prevent the emotional engagement that comes from actually feeling emotional attachment to the characters.
Many of the assumptions in classic
fairy tales need to be challenged,
and there are few who do so as
thoughtfully as Naomi Novik.
(Image via 

The argument could be made that Miryem, the moneylender’s daughter who is involved with the supernatural Staryk, needs to drive a condescending narrative, given her haughty character and the well-earned distrust of her peers. However, when Wanda is narrating, this level of condescension feels weirdly out-of-place.

Other readers feel the three main narrators are distinct and engaging enough, but still agree that some of the tertiary narrators stand out as particularly unnecessary. Chapters told from the point of view of the vain and shallow lord are largely irrelevant and grating.

It should be noted that having a complex and not-always-likable protagonist in Miryem is something we appreciated. Compared with certain other slightly-twee female protagonists in other Hugo-finalist novels this year, Miryem stands out as a compelling and interesting character.

Overall, Novik has done so much so well in Spinning Silver that it will likely be close to the top of many of our Hugo ballots. Despite its flaws, we would not be disappointed to see it win the award, given the thoughtfulness and insight Novik displays in the narrative construction.

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