Spinning Silver

Naomi Novik
Spinning Silver Cover

Spinning Silver


This is the ultimate proof that Uprooted was not a fluke. Naomi Novik taps yet again into the rich, multiethnic folklore of her ancestral lands (the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) to spin an incredible, riveting tale that blasts stereotypes and flips traditional gender roles upside-down.

Even though Uprooted is a clear spiritual cousin to Spinning Silver in terms of setting and manner of storytelling, the two books cannot be set further apart. While Uprooted is fast-paced and relatively light-hearted, with a solid "opposites-attract" romantic undercurrent, Spinning Silver is a much darker, more contemplative and serious novel, with interlocking themes of duty, compassion and understanding for the "human condition".

What makes Spinning Silver so intriguing is the way traditional folklore stories, characters and elements are reread and retold from a modern perspective until they are almost unrecognisable. Take the Jewish moneylender who is too kind-hearted to collect his debts. Or the peasant girl who prefers to work for a Jew rather than stay with her abusive, alcoholic father. Or the mousy bride who refuses to be submit to her destiny as a meek wife and instead faces danger head on to protect what she holds dearest. Rather than sticking to social norm, everyone is given the chance to be whoever they want and make whatever they can out of their lives. Stereotypes are blasted out of the sky with dark glee across the book. There is something immensely liberating in this.

Consequently (and very much unlike traditional folklore), there is no one truly good and no one truly evil in the novel. Everyone is flawed, everyone is somewhat broken, everyone makes mistakes, and everyone seeks to protect what they love and treasure in the only way they know. There is so much humanity in Spinning Silver that it reminds me of a novel by Stefan Zweig.

Gender roles--like everything else--are flipped upside-down. Instead of strong men who save damsels in distress, Spinning Silver has strong women who rescue somewhat colourless and apathetic men. This strong feminist undercurrent has nothing to do with modern-day feminism though. Spinning Silver's women need to be strong because they have no other choice--having been failed by the men in their lives, they either need to take control or end up being treated worse than cattle.

I have to say that Spinning Silver has been an immensely pleasant surprise. When it came out in 2015, Uprooted was such a success that it managed to sweep--or at least make the shortlists--of every major sci fi and fantasy award across the globe. I did not quite expect the author to be able to repeat this feat any time soon, in particular, with the same folklore theme and a Polish-Lithuanian setting. My surprise is therefore all the more sweeter, as I consider Spinning Silver to be the better and more mature novel of the two, with better characterisation and stronger message. The only question is if Naomi Novik is perhaps setting the bar too high for herself this time?