Fiction: Rumpelstiltskin Redux

SPINNING SILVER
By Naomi Novik
466 pp. Del Rey. $28.

Winter is growing longer each year in the countryside, where a 16-year-old girl — fretting because her mother is ill and her father is an inept moneylender — decides to take on collecting the debts herself, and immediately discovers that she is excellent at business. She grows a bit proud, and so draws the attention of a king of winter who wants her for her alchemy, to turn his wintry silver into summery gold.

Here Naomi Novik has gathered countless old tales and turned them into something all kinds of new. The theft of summer, a burning demon who lives inside a prince, a witch’s hut in the woods, the secret power of names, the frozen winter road that winds its way through the depths of the forest — they’re all here.

But she also borrows our everyday truths: the way a family can disintegrate into violence, the way a ghetto can be disappeared, how the everyday persecution of Jews can erupt into mass violence, the magic of young children becoming people, the creation of food and clothing and blankets and shelter from plants and animals.

Image

In this melding, our moneylender and the czarina of the realm, as far apart as two people can be but each in unholy trouble with a man, find a way to help themselves — and each nother. This book is about the determination and quiet competence of women doing remarkable things without knowing first that they can do them. “I’d weave a net out of us to hold all” the country, one of our heroines promises halfway through, long before we suspect she can.

Novik’s last standalone book, “Uprooted,” is a flawless and straightforward tale of a young woman’s awakening as a witch. It is single-minded and precise, a coming-of-age story complete with castle, magician and king. “Spinning Silver” feels different, sprawling and shaggy in a sophisticated way (though it also feels suitable for any smart middle-schooler or adult).

In richness of ideas, and in glory of sentences, both these books are spectacular. Where “Uprooted” was clean and thrilling, “Spinning Silver” is like falling asleep in the passenger seat of a car and waking with a jolt of fear, a cold window sticky against your cheek, a strange night country outside. Where are you? Here, in a book of not very comforting stories, a big and meaty novel, rich in both ideas and people, with the vastness of Tolkien and the empathy and joy in daily life of Le Guin.

What else should we teach young people but that bad things happen and that it’s awfully hard work to fix them? Evil regimes come. People are held captive. Sometimes good people do nothing. Fairy tales are about moral intentions, about the perils of adulthood and desire. Usually, anyone who emerges from these tales intact has declined incredible gifts. If you ever suspect you are in a fairy tale you must reject your most pathetic self. “I would have thought my situation rather an object lesson in being careful what you wished for,” one possessed victim of greed tells us. No one ever takes a lesson! Here our heroines do — and we finally get a perfect tale about the songs of ice and fire.

Leave a Response