Rumplelstiltskin. Does that name ring a bell? It’s a fairy tale about a creature who could spin straw into gold, and who would not tell his name to anyone. Despite the story only being little over two pages long, Rumplestiltskin is one of the most famous fairy tales ever written, inspiring countless artists to interpret it in their own way. Naomi Novik’s novel Spinning Silver is one of those reimaginings. Want to know whether her story is just as magical as its source material? Read on!
Spinning Silver takes place in an imaginary European country in the Middle Ages and is about two women, Miryem, a moneylender who is so good at her job that there are rumours that she can turn silver into gold, and Irina, who is married off to a tzar with a terrifying secret. Enter the fairy tale element: the King of Winter is interested in Miryem’s gift and claims her for himself, and the tzar turns out to be a fire demon. It is up to these two women to save their kingdom, which is more and more occupied by the cold winter.
There are definitely aspects of Rumpelstiltskin in Spinning Silver. There is the turning of worthless material into gold and the power that lies in naming things. However, there are also elements of The Hunger Games and The Chronicles of Narnia, because of the teenager-saves-the-world trope and the inclusion of a magical world of winter. While I like all these elements seperately, I am not sure whether the combination really works in Spinning Silver. Fairy tale retellings are tricky, because they have to stay true to the original source while also keeping the reader interested in its modern take on the story; and Novik’s version doesn’t seem to pull of either.
One of the ways in which a modern audience can be captivated by a fairy tale retelling is by playing with the narrative. Instead of writing the story down with a simple third-person perspective, as is the norm with fairy tales, Novik decided to switch the narrative between a couple of characters. While this could have been really interesting, since each character would have their own perspective on events, the characters in Spinning Silver merely chronicle what happened to them, instead of focusing on how these events have influenced them. They serve as witnesses rather than actively playing a part in the story. And this is a pity, since it leaves the characters flat, lacking any kind of development.
This does not necessarily have to be a bad thing, since, like most fairy tales, Spinning Silver is, in essence, a simple story about good versus evil. The protagonists are clearly good, and their opponents are evidently evil. That’s the way it has always been, and that’s the way we like it. However, modern fiction demands more; perfect characters are, frankly, rather boring. It makes a novel predictable and even frustrating, because some actions are clearly plot driven rather than character driven. So when, in the end, everything is solved and all the characters live happily ever after, it does not come as much of a surprise that the two evil beings (the winter king and the fiery demon) the two young women were forced to marry turn out to be good after all. Somehow Novik seemed to be struggling between writing a simple fairy tale and a layered, complicated novel, and lands somewhere in between.
Since fairy tales are so short, there isn’t much time for deep themes and layered metaphors. Novik seemed so delighted that she had over four hundred pages to fill, that she decided to include a plethora of themes and metaphors in her novel. The most important theme seems to be how initial opposites can eventually attract; there is the notion that one has to be cruel in order to become rich, that one has to be beautiful in order to get married, that magic and common sense do not go together, and that ice and fire can never co-exist. While these juxtapositions are clever and interesting, somehow it feels like there are too many of them, and none of them are resolved satisfyingly. As a result, the story feels a bit chaotic at times, and it left me wondering what the story was really about. Was it about magic? About these two young women? About their families? About the power of names? About spinning? About silver or gold, or its value? I still do not quite know for sure.
And that, I think, is why I didn’t really enjoy Spinning Silver. I expected a retelling of one of my favourite fairy tales, but it turned out to be about so much more than that, while at the same time it wasn’t really about anything at all. It’s like a scene from the book, in which Miryem has to turn huge piles of silver into gold. While being able to do so should feel magical and powerful, it becomes quite tedious and exhausting after a while. I kept hoping that Spinning Silver would be a great novel that shed a new light on a classic tale, but unfortunately Novik doesn’t possess the same magic as Rumplestiltskin does. She tried to spin her story into gold, but ended up with tangles.
What did you think of Spinning Silver? Which fairy tale retelling would you love to read? Do let me know in the comments! Also, don’t forget to follow me for more book-related posts!