A hint of cold in the summer

A review of Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver

If you long for days gone past where you were tucked into bed with a good fairytale, Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver is a good place to start. Like all good fairytales, there are heroes and villains, obstacles to overcome and morals to be learnt. Where Novik’s tale diverges from this is in the greater shades of grey throughout. The villain is not who you thought at the onset. The heroes not as perfect as in a real fairytale. The ending not what you expected, but absolutely what you needed.

Spinning silver is a new loose telling of the tale of Rumpelstiltskin, though he himself is nowhere to be found in this delightfully dark story. Novik opens her tale with:

“The real story isn’t half as pretty as the one you’ve heard”

Perhaps it isn’t, but the story is all the more intriguing and satisfying for its more developed characters, who are not good merely because they are poor and pretty and vice-versa. In a medieval style world, it is interesting to watch Novik’s heroines stand tall for who they are, warts and all, and fight their battles in unique ways.


It is both surprising and not that in the post me-too era that abusive relationships feature in the story and each of the women find different ways to deal with it. For example, while being forced to repay her father’s debts, Wanda turns the situation into something infinitely more profitable and saves herself from her abusive parent. Irina, sold into marriage to a violent possessed man, uses her own power to protect herself and those she loves from him. Miryam faces a different kind of abuse – from the Staryk king (a king of cold and winter) – who forces her away from her family to turn silver into gold. She uses unexpected talents to bargain with him and, perhaps more controversially, manages to turn an originally difficult and forced relationship into something positive.

More than looks

None of the women are required to be violent themselves in protecting themselves from abuse and it stands as a strong message that it is their own unique abilities that save them, they don’t need to change themselves. Further to this, and in keeping with the fairytales of old, attributes like intelligence and kindness are crucial to the success of each woman in securing allies and saving themselves and others. However, in contrast to the fairytales of old, none of the three are noted for beauty and even descriptions of their looks come relatively late in the tale with not enough to vividly picture them.

Miryam is described as “a skinny branch with dark brown hair and thin cheeks”, while Wanda describes herself as “tall and my hair was yellow and long”. Of each woman, Irina’s looks are described the most as this is her key failing by her father’s view and obscuring her looks becomes important to sell her into marriage. Irina is not “especially pretty, I would have said, only ordinary, except her hair was long and thick and lustrous”.

Put out the fires to save winter

In managing their relationships and discovering their own strengths, the three women are finally required to join together to face the biggest challenge of all – saving the world from the fire demon Chernobog who will devour the world and destroy the wintery world of the Staryk. As with climate change, it’s made clear that the destruction of winter would be catastrophic to all, not just the Staryk, even though the harsh winters of Spinning Silver are feared by its inhabitants.

It is a lofty goal, seemingly impossible, much like its real life parallel of climate change and I won’t spoil the story by revealing whether they succeed or not. Key to their ability to battle though is changing perceptions – their own and others, fighting personal as well as ‘real’ demons and creative solutions. It’s fair to say these are the same things required to manage climate issues in today’s world and as with the novel, we can question whether we are already too late to make a difference. Just like the book’s characters, to give up now will seal our fate anyway.

An escape from or to reality

Spinning Silver is a welcome escape from the constant bombardment of today’s issues even while its characters deal with their own versions of it. Novik’s gripping story is both a traditional fairytale with Grimm-esque darkness while offering a thoroughly modern touch. If you are looking for a book that you won’t want to put down from both enjoyment and desperate need to find out what happens next, then Spinning Silver is your book.

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, released 10 July 2018, 
Pan Macmillan Australia, reviewed using Kindle ebook format, priced at $14.99.