Desert Isle Keeper
Spinning Silver is a lush, richly imagined, gloriously magical fantasy novel that takes its inspiration from Russian and Jewish folklore. A story full of adventure, wit, dangerous fey and clever queens, it is everything, EVERYTHING that a fairy tale for adults should be.
Irina is the plain daughter of the first wife of an upstart duke. Her father earned his title rather than being born into it and while men deeply respect him and his accomplishments, theirs is not the noblest blood. She expects a simple marriage, to a man of moderate importance. She gets far more than she bargained for. When her grand marriage to the most important man in the land turns into a fight for survival, she meets a most unexpected ally.
When Miryem Mandelstam’s mother becomes ill, Miryem’s patience with her father’s sloth comes to an end. As the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders, she should be living in modest wealth but instead, the money her father lends out never makes it back. While they go hungry, other men dower their daughters with Mandelstam coin. But no more. She goes door to door, collecting what is due. Before much time has passed there is food on the table, they have a floor made of wood rather than straw, her mother has a warm fur to sleep under and they have Wanda whose father, unable to pay, has the girl working off his debt as their maid.
When Miryem’s grandfather congratulates her on her ability to “turn silver to gold”, he is referring to her hard work reaping profits. When her mother, on the sleigh ride home, whines about the fact that Miryem has had to be tenacious in order to change the family fortunes, Miryem justifies herself by repeating the compliment. When Miryem’s next deal involves selling two dresses for gold coins that she had bought for silver, her father says, “My daughter really can turn silver to gold”. And thus, her fate is sealed.
“A power claimed and challenged and thrice carried out is true; the proving makes it so.”
So Staryk magic believes. These men of ice, the lords of winter, love gold and have long raided and killed in the mortal realm to claim it. Their king, who caught the compliments made to Miryem on the wind, issues her an ultimatum:
“Thrice you shall turn silver to gold for me or be changed to ice yourself. And then, if you manage it, I will make you my queen.”
To fulfill his demands, Miryem launches a quest that pulls her into the darkest realms of magic, where she will battle a demon of fire, a king made of ice, and fight for the survival of humanity.
The characters in this novel are amazingly, vibrantly drawn. I loved the way the author is able to capture the reality of an era in which women could be expected to be treated as little more than chattel, and yet create three clever, talented young ladies who work within and around the confines of their environment to excel. Miryem does not resign herself to slow death through starvation and cold but develops an icy resolve that enables her to change her family’s lot in life. She utilizes that same resolve to survive when she is taken to the Staryk kingdom, a an unwilling ‘bride’. Quiet, calm Irina becomes a force to be reckoned with when she finds that Tsar Mirnatius is a far worse monster than she could ever have expected. Wanda slowly, painstakingly builds a new life for herself and her brothers against incredible odds. These ladies are so smart and resilient; I loved that the author has them use their nimble minds to outwit their assailants. They are good, kind people as fables tell us to be, but their goodness and kindness has an ingenuity and farsightedness to it that makes it more than just passively accepting one’s lot with good cheer. When they see evil, they act against it. When they see need, they allocate resources to deal with it. When they are in danger, they fight for survival. They don’t wait on luck or fairy godmothers but twist that concept so that they become their own source of salvation. Their moral purity is their ability to think beyond themselves and their own need and deal with the bigger picture.
I also loved the author’s exploration of the bigotry of the times. Miryem, as a young Jewish woman, knows that plenty of people despise her for no reason other than her birth and latch on to any excuse for their hatred. The story shows repeatedly how it was, in fact, their neighbors who stole and cheated, not the money lenders. I spent a great deal of time in fear for Miryem and her family and friends; they lived in such danger, between the horrible ant-Semitism and the heartless, fey Staryk, their lives seemed endlessly in mortal peril.
The Staryk are another element handled absolutely brilliantly. In many fairy tale retellings, the monsters are defanged, changing them from dangerous, cruel enemies into misunderstood victims. Not so here. While wrong has been dealt on both sides, the fey are not shown as misunderstood. They treat humans with contempt, having no respect for mortal lives which end so quickly when theirs last so long. They take what they want or need and give no thought to those who suffer as a consequence. They snatch women from their homes and families, and those are the lucky ones. They rape others. Yet the author also does a fabulous job of turning them into individuals for whom we can have some empathy as she shows, that like us, they can be redeemed, can learn to care and can have good in them along with the bad. Miryem is instrumental in showing them how being open hearted makes us better neighbors to those around us.
I loved the HEA storylines here. Both women come to be appreciated for their worth; not looks – both are rather plain – but their actual value as clever, caring people. Fantastically done is the depiction of married life. Neither Irina nor Miryem nor their partners looked for romance, but they did seek love. They wanted people who placed worth in them, who saw beyond the surface and were interested in building genuine partnerships. Sex is a right and privilege of marriage, but desire comes in far behind other attributes. Very true to the times.
The writing is beautiful, lyrical, incandescent. It reads like a fairy story and but one with real depth, carefully crafted and heartrendingly poignant and lovely.
I’ve re-read portions of this tale a dozen times already, it was that good. I finished it, restarted it, visited various parts over and over. Spinning Silver is that rarest of all things, a brilliant, creative idea perfectly executed. Filled with enchantment, thrillingly, chillingly scary and ultimately, having good triumph over evil, this book is wonderful, and not to be missed.