Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novic, is so exquisite, both in the writing and in the telling, that after having spent three days reading at breakfast, lunch, and bedtime, I stayed up from 2:00 until 4:00 a.m. this morning to finish it; and when I got up at 9:00 and made my breakfast, rather than starting a new book I opened Spinning Silver
to page one and began reading again, to remind myself of all the reasons why.
I purposely used the alternate spelling of “fairy” in the title because, although this book is billed as a fairy tale retelling, it is light years away from most of those. It borrows a couple of basic concepts from “Rumpelstiltskin,” turns them completely on their heads, and goes on with a story nothing like that mean little tale. There are actual faerie in this book, but they have more to do with the fey creatures of Celtic lore than with any relatively prosaic fairy godmother from the Grimms’ tales.
This is, above all, a character-driven story, and so you have to be patient as a reader for the first little while until you are sufficiently acquainted with the three protagonists. As a readers’ advisor, I am always one to tell a reader that if they aren’t enjoying a book in the early chapters, by all means drop it and find another. I’m not saying that this book isn’t good from page one—it is. And things begin happening from fairly early in the story; but it takes about 120 pages (which is a pretty big commitment out of 480) to complete your introduction to the pivotal characters and provide some action that really moves their joint story forward in a significant way.
As a person who loves character development, that didn’t matter to me in the least, because I was so fascinated with the way the first protagonist, Miryem, morphs from a cold, hungry, desperate girl into a tough, confident one who, once she decides that she is the one who will have to take care of her family, shows no hesitation.
Miryem and her parents, the Mandelstams, are Jews living on the outskirts of their little village near the forest. Miryem’s mother’s father is a moneylender in the larger town of Vysnia, and a hugely successful one; but Miryem’s father, who decided to take up the same profession based on the dowry from his wife, is too gentle to make a living the same way. When he attempts to collect on the money he has lent, his customers jeer at him, shout racial epithets, and chase him from their doorsteps, or else make excuses that they know will touch his soft heart and cause him to give way. All around the Mandelstams, the other people in the village are benefiting from the money they have borrowed, with their investments in more livestock, better farm tools, warm clothing, and fields of crops, while the Mandelstams starve. Finally, with her mother ill and her father helpless and discouraged, Miryem decides that she will have to be the moneylender of the family and, taking up her basket, she treks from door to door insisting on her just desserts. Soon there is a new thatched roof, warm clothing, and meat in the pot, but her parents weep that she has become cold inside from this “unladylike” profession.
Meanwhile, six miles away, Wanda lives with her Da and her brothers, Sergey and Stepon. Her mother is dead, buried in the yard under a white-blossoming tree with her six miscarried baby boys, and her father is a drunkard and a wastrel who has borrowed six gold kopeks from the moneylender, more than he will ever be able to repay. When Miryem comes calling asking for payment on the debt, he reviles her and tries to drive her away. She knows that if she lets him win she will confront the same problem at every turn, so she tells him that his daughter, Wanda, may pay off his debt a half cent a day by working for her and her parents. Although Miryem believes this will be a hardship, Wanda is secretly delighted, since it gets her out of the house and away from her father’s constant abuse; so Wanda becomes a fixture in the Mandelstam household, and soon becomes the debt collector in Miryem’s stead, while Miryem pursues other business.
Finally, after an ill-advised boast by Miryem about being able to turn silver into gold attracts the attention of the king of the Staryk, who comes to her with a bargain she is unable to refuse, we meet the third leg of the stool of this story: Irina, daughter of a duke and a quarter-breed Staryk “witch” and, up to this point in life, a plain and silent girl with no expectations. But the advent of Staryk silver alters her worth in the eyes of her ambitious father, and she suddenly finds herself betrothed to the dashing Tsar Mirnatius, who is both less and a lot more than he seems, with dire effect. Although the men in the book play pivotal roles, it is this triad of women whose thoughts and actions control the progression of their layered, interwoven lives, and who end up saving the kingdom of Lithvas from powerful enemies.
The themes in this book—agency, self determination, pride, empathy, duality, the embracing of family wherever you find it—are pervasive, and poignant but also raw. Watching each protagonist rise to her challenges with ingenuity and quiet determination was a joy. And the best praise I can give is that the quality of the character development, the language, the scene-setting, everything you would want from a story like this were maintained from beginning to end. The final sentence was as satisfying as all the rest, and was the perfect ending to a gripping and entertaining tale. It’s been a long time since I read a book that I loved with as much fervor as this one. I wish I hadn’t waited so long to read it after I heard about it. I was and am thoroughly beguiled.
ADDENDUM: I must address one issue with this book that was brought up to me by a friend on Goodreads. Although the author otherwise goes out of her way to be inclusive and expansive in her representation of characters of different religious and economic status, she is not similarly sensitive when it comes to the one gay character in the book. There is a courtier who makes it obvious that he is smitten with his cousin the Tsar, and Novik has the protagonist Irina scheme to marry him off to a woman for her own political gain, and is mocking and dismissive of his true preferences, actually threatening him to get him to comply with her plan. Novik needs to recognize that gay people merit the same sensitivity of treatment as her other represented groups. She should know that bad gay representation is worse than no gay representation. Yes, it’s two pages out of 480, but it continues a precedent and a prejudice that should not be present in this jewel of a book. I’m sorry to see it here.
In The Night Country, sequel to Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood, we find Alice, known in the Hinterland as Alice-three-times, back in the “real world” of New York City. (Spoilers for the first book ahead…)
She has been followed fairly precipitately by many of the other inhabitants of the Hinterland, because when Finch broke her out of her story he didn’t do it gently, and the trailing threads and gaping holes began to disintegrate patterns, then stories, until none of the so-called “characters” were safe there. So although Alice is back to living with her mother, going to school, working in a bookstore, and exploring the concept of normality, she is uneasily aware that there are other inhabitants of the city who are also refugees, and who have more in common with her than she does with the oblivious humans surrounding her.
In addition to following the fairy tale people when their stories crumble around them, the book contains a murder mystery: Characters are turning up dead, and not just dead but missing important parts of their bodies. There is a certain method to the killings, as first a left hand, then a right, then a left foot, then a right, go missing from each subsequent victim. The frightening part for Alice is the state of the corpses—as far as she knows, no one but she has the ability to freeze people with a touch, and doesn’t like the idea that she is therefore the prime suspect.
In a parallel tale, when the Hinterland started to disintegrate, Ellery Finch saw his friends to safety as best he could but then made another choice—not to go back to his world of origin, but rather to go on, whatever that meant. We catch glimpses of him here and there throughout the first half of the book through the letters he writes to Alice from strange worlds, and then halfway through the book we turn more fully to his story. How all the stories—and Stories—come together in the end will stay a mystery ready for you to read.
One thing I love about these books is the descriptive nature of the prose. There are three escaped characters who in the Hinterland were known as the Acolytes of the Silver Dagger, the Red, the White, and the Black (after the colors in which they dress). But here on Earth, they are simply known as the Trio. They have found their way to the Christian God, and hang out in a church in Midtown. Alice goes there to confront them, to ask if they have a message for her:
“Looking over the pews I saw that they weren’t quite empty: three heads just peeked over the top of a bench on the left side. The heads were hooded, from left to right, in red, white, and black…. I slid into the pew in front of theirs and turned around, facing them over its back. They had eerie little oatmeal box faces, like an illustrator’s idea of how a wholesome child might look. If the illustrator were terrified of wholesome children.”
Doesn’t your mind immediately flash to a picture of a child sporting the rounded pink cheeks and sly smile of “the Quaker man,” with just a hint of menace somewhere in the expression?
Although the author plans to bring out the actual volume, Tales from the Hinterland, containing Althea Proserpine’s original stories, in January of 2021, that feels more like a whimsical addition to round out the worlds she has created than it does a sequel. Unless Melissa Albert contradicts me sometime in the future, The Hazel Wood and The Night Country form a perfectly complete duology.
Fairy tales are being well represented in the world of literature these days, and I don’t mean yet another pallid re-telling of some archetypal classic, I mean new and original Story.
I just finished reading The Hazel Wood, by Melissa Albert, and I don’t know how its discovery eluded me between its publication date in 2018 and now, particularly with all the encomiums it has received from the likes of The New York Times, Kirkus Reviews, and Booklist, among many others. Eventually, however, hints of its renown sifted down into my consciousness, and I ordered a copy.
Having just suffered through the disappointing first 50 pages of yet another turgid, bulky, awkward fantasy by a supposed queen of YA literature and making the decision not to continue reading it, I picked up Albert’s book with a little trepidation, but from the first sentence—”My mother was raised on fairy tales, but I was raised on highways”—I was completely enthralled.
Alice’s stories of bad luck and trouble that follow her nomadic existence with her mother, Ella, seem unlikely yet inevitable, and when they finally find a reprieve in a letter sharing important news plus a new husband for Ella who is able to provide all the advantages Alice has never known, she seems so surly and ungrateful for what she has received. Her instincts about the ephemeral quality of their new life prove more reliable than Ella’s, however, and when she and her friend Finch encounter ever more bizarre circumstances in their search for a supposedly kidnapped Ella, Alice feels like the trouble around her is more familiar than not.
It all proceeds from the obscure little book of dark fairy tales Alice’s grandmother, Althea Proserpine, brought into the world. Alice has never gotten her hands on a copy, but schoolmate Ellery Finch is a super-fan who can fill Alice in on the contents of this somewhat nasty little collection. Alice resolves that a trip to the Hazel Wood, somewhere in upstate New York, where her grandmother lived near the supposed entryway into the Hinterland from where the stories flow, is necessary to rescue her mother; but relying on Finch to get her there is a doubtful advantage, knowing his loyalty is suspect.
This is a classic portal tale, wherein fairy tales are also to be found, but only behind a door to a place you may not, in the end, wish to visit. It’s written in a literary and intelligent manner, well plotted, and has a satisfying story arc. It contains some surprises that were actually predictable if you were paying close attention, but the fact that they could be expected doesn’t detract from their relevance to and enhancement of the story. The Hazel Wood is a consistent and engaging celebration of the sometimes horrifying origins of Story, and I loved it from beginning to end, including the cover art that so wonderfully foreshadows most of the activity in the book.
The irony in my thorough enjoyment of this book and the next I am about to discuss is that I have not previously been a big fan of fairy tales, having always found them dark, disturbing, and inexplicable; but this book and the next made some sense out of them for me. I appreciated the two “found” tales from Proserpine’s book at the end of this one.
(There is a sequel, The Night Country, which was just published last month and, obeying the behest of a Goodreads friend who said “read the sequel while the events of The Hazel Wood are fresh in your mind,” I have placed it on order.)
The second work that is currently reinforcing the portal story in the world is the latest volume in the Wayward Children tales by Seanan McGuire. I have enthused in the past over this gem of a series—if you are unfamiliar with the previous four books, please read my review, here. The fifth entry, Come Tumbling Down, harks back to Jack and Jill, the twins whose history was explained in book two, Down Among the Sticks and Bones.
The conclusion that Melissa Albert approaches in The Hazel Wood and that Seanan McGuire has fully realized in her books, which is something I never really understood until having read this one, is that fairy tales aren’t supposed to be nice, and the protagonists of the tales aren’t necessarily benign and pleasant people. As Sumi from the Wayward Children books says, none of the children who have traveled to other worlds and returned are in the normal range of character—they are all from the land of misfit toys. They all realize they are heroes of some kind, if only of their own stories; but heroes may have to be ruthless, heroes make hard decisions, heroes may sacrifice themselves or choose to sacrifice others in the cause of the greater good, or Balance, or whatever geas their world has imposed upon them. Even in the world of Disney, heroes can be incredibly single-minded—and therefore self-involved—when pursuing a quest. These children who have traveled to other worlds are not Lyra, or the innocents of Narnia, largely unscathed; they are scarred by their journeys, tragic figures in some instances hollowed out and filled again with something alien that continues to call them. As hard as Disney tries to make fairy tales into benign and positive love stories, the goblins and sea monsters and gnomes keep rearing their heads and saying, Don’t forget about us, we are still here too. McGuire gets that, and it’s what makes her books both terrifying and so genuine that they bowl you over with their awful sincerity.
If you are curious about other portal stories with which you may be unfamiliar (besides the classics of Narnia or Wonderland), try Cornelia Funke’s Mirrorworld books and the wonderful Shades of Magic trilogy by V. E. Schwab. Also of note, in a more time travel kind of way, is Kindred, by Octavia Butler. Book Riot provides a longer list, many of which I can’t vouch for, but you go exploring in these other worlds and see!