Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

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Spinning Silver

Miryem's father is the village moneylender, but his kindness and gullibility means he isn't very good at his job. When Miryem takes over, she finds ways of turning silver into gold and getting those who have taken advantage of her family for years into paying up. Her skills are so great they even attract the attention of the supernatural Staryk, who make her an offer: turn silver into gold three times and she can become a queen. Miryem seeks to defy the Staryk, leading her into a very dangerous alliance...

Naomi Novik is a former video game designer turned fantasy author, best-known for her epic "Napoleonic Wars but with dragons" series, Temeraire, and her single-volume fantasy Uprooted. Spinning Silver is another stand-alone fantasy, a modern fairy tale which pits a young woman against the lords of winter with the fate of her homeland and her family in the balance.

The opening 100 pages or so of Spinning Silver are as fine a slice of modern fantasy as one could wish for, with vivid descriptions of the landscape, an excellent depiction of small town politics and life and a small but memorable cast of well-drawn individuals. Miryem's development from hapless young girl to accomplished businesswoman is well-handled and the transition from a straightforward rustic story to one of an emerging supernatural threat is compelling.

Where the book starts to falter is that decision that, rather than keep this a small-scale fantasy, the author decides to make the story more epic, bringing in events in the capital city, multiple new POV characters, a second supernatural threat, the emperor of the land, religion (the main characters are Jewish, although the setting is fictional) and other elements as well. And it has to be said this transition does not work quite as well as it should. Novik's strict, disciplined POV structure and tight writing does not handle the expansion in scale very well, and the story becomes diffused as too many new elements are added into it. I was put in mind of Peter Jackson in Hobbit Trilogy mode being asked to handle a fresh adaptation of Snow White and by the time he's done with it, it's a trilogy with a cast of thousands and an incongruous Orlando Bloom cameo.

This is not to say that Spinning Silver is a bad novel, just one where the strong elements are drawn out over far too long a page count and constantly interrupted by less-interesting characters, side-plots and, oddly, a lot of words spent on the economics of luxury apron trading. When the novel is firing on all cylinders, it's phenomenally atmospheric and richly detailed. When it isn't, it becomes a bit of a slog, not helped by an awkward POV device where we have to spend the first paragraph or two of each new POV shift trying to work out which character we're now with. This is fine in the opening hundred pages when we only have two POVs, but when we get to the end of the book and there's half a dozen in play, it's more of an issue.

Eventually the book ties together is disparate plotlines and we get a somewhat satisfying end, but it feels like the book has to take a lot of unnecessary detours to get there.

Spinning Silver (***½) is well-written with lots of great individual scenes and moments, but the overall pacing and structure is awkward and flawed.
 
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