As a complete Naomi Novik newbie, I didn’t realise I was about to read the latest novel from the fairy godmother of modern fantasy fiction when I opened Spinning Silver. With a nine-strong series behind her and a wildly successful stand-alone novel published back in 2015, her latest offering was as highly anticipated by her international army of fans as the Love Island final (no judgements here).
Spinning Silver has all the trappings of a traditional fairytale. Beautiful pastoral backdrops. Tick. Peasant girl seeking her fortune. Tick. Dark and enchanting force from a far away land. Tick. But Novik turns the genre on it’s head from there. The novel's title character, Myriam, is the daughter of an unsuccessful moneylender. She decides to take the family business into her own hands and finds her talent for turning silver into gold. Myriam’s character is more medieval #girlboss than helpless heroine, even when a formidable fairy king seeks to use her craft for his own ends.
This is where the novel borrows from folklore. Novik uses Rumpelstiltskin’s three trick tale to set the scene for her own unique story to unfold, clearly insistent on injecting clever and independent women into the well-worn narrative. Myriam, alongside the three other lead female characters, buck genre tropes by being as fearless as they are flawed. They balance magic with realistic moral dilemmas that reach far beyond the domestic sphere into politics, agriculture, war and finances. That being said, the ending felt like somewhat of a shortcut, with Novik leaning back into the traditional fairy tale mould to draw the novel to a close.
Although Novik’s characters are strong and the story ferocious, be prepared to work for it. At almost 500 pages, Spinning Silver isn’t light by anyone’s standards and the writing is dense. Set from multiple perspectives, the magic of Novik’s narrative is often lost in the detail and at times becomes hard to follow, with gaps left to fill in as the perspective shifts to yet another character. If done right though, Spinning Silver feels like it could be the feminist antidote to TV’s Game of Thrones. It’s as dramatic and ambitious, and puts women firmly at the helm of a genre that’s held them back for centuries.
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik. Published by Pan MacMillan, 2018.