People often seem amazed at how many books I can read as the mother of two small children. I try to read fifty-two books a year, and let me tell you: it is a serious challenge. For those who ask how I do it, the simple answer is that I prioritize reading above other forms of relaxation.
One of the ways I do that is by listening to audiobooks with my husband in the evening. We made a rule for ourselves that we don’t watch TV on weekdays. Fridays and Saturdays are movie nights, but the rest of the week is for either playing games together, reading our own books, or listening to an audiobook together.
I love listening to books as a couple; I find it one of the most bonding things we do in this small-children-raising, sleep-missing, hectic-as-heck season. It’s a way of being together and relaxing without being glued to a screen. Stories are so important to me, and sharing the experience of a new story with my husband is an intimacy that I cherish. We snuggle up on the couch, maybe with some tea or some vegan almond butter brownies, and we press play on some piece of fantasy fiction.
That’s our jam, sci-fi and fantasy fic. They provide the common ground in our otherwise very different tastes. We love watching Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Doctor Who, Firefly, and Star Wars, and our bookish preferences are similar. For a while now, we’ve been listening to book after book by Brandon Sanderson, and he’s fantastic. We’re pretty obsessed with his Stormlight Archives series. We might be in our fifties when he finishes the series (he only just finished book three of ten), but that knowledge has no power to diminish our passion.
We switched it up recently though, and listened to a Goodreads Choice Awards Winner, by Lithuanian-Polish-Jewish author, Naomi Novik. Her novel, Spinning Silver, is inspired by the old fairy tale about Rumplestiltskin, but to compare it to that would be unjust. It is so much more.
Review: Spinning Silver
Spoiler Alert: This review contains some indirect plot spoilers.
Spinning Silver follows the intertwining stories of three brave and determined young women, each fighting for their country, their families, and their lives. Their country, which sounds like somewhere in old country Europe (perhaps Russia or Lithuania), is being suffocated and starved by an ever-advancing, never-ending winter, brought on by oppressive elves called the Staryk. The Staryk encroach ever further towards the capital city, killing and pillaging whole villages in search of gold. Their thirst for the precious metal is never satisfied. They’ll stop at nothing to acquire it.
Miryem, the Jewish daughter of a failed money-lender, is fighting to save her family from starvation by taking over her father’s business. She becomes renowned for her ability to make a profit… to practically spin gold out of nothing. The king of the Staryk hears of her reputation and comes knocking at her door. If she fails to meet his demands for gold, her life may be forfeit, but if she succeeds, a worse fate may lay in store for her.
Wanda is the peasant daughter of an abusive, alcoholic farmer. She and her two brothers are just trying to survive one day at a time. They are constantly faced with beatings, cold, and hunger, so when Miryem comes to Wanda with an offer of work, Wanda jumps at the chance to one day purchase safety and independence for herself and her brothers. In so doing, she ties her fate irrevocably to Miryem’s.
Irina is the daughter of a duke, and her cold, calculating father has decided to try to marry her against her will to the young tsar, Mirnatius. Irina discovers to her horror that Mirnatius is in league with a terrible demon who poses as much of a threat to her country as the Staryk winter…and perhaps an even greater threat to her.
When Irina’s path crosses unexpectedly with Miryem’s and Wanda’s, the three girls take a desperate chance to fight the oppression and cruelty that have kept them down all their lives. They will risk everything to outwit their enemies, escape with their lives, and save those they love.
Naomi Novik takes an old, dried-up folk story and transforms it into a rich, glittering tale for the modern day. Her protagonists are cunning, resourceful, brave, and selfless women. Her writing is fresh, fun, and easy to fly right through. She draws on fairy stories and folklore with artistic precision, but she doesn’t merely rewrite them with a modern twist. She reinvents them entirely.
At the beginning of the book, I waited eagerly to see who fit the role of Rumpelstiltskin, who matched the king, and which girl represented the miller’s daughter. I wanted to see how each piece corresponded to the original tale. I was pleasantly disappointed to see that there is not a one-to-one correspondence. Novik utilized the elements of the original story, but instead of simply updating them, she fit them in like puzzle pieces into a brand-new, larger puzzle.
The only failing in the book was a mild one. One villainous character appears as a “good guy” at the story’s end, but his transformation was rather lacking. He does not have an obvious or complete change of heart, yet he is written into a romance with one of the main characters. I wanted to root for that romance and see this character as a good guy, so I withheld my objections and just enjoyed where the story took me. However, the honest truth is that the path the story took to get there wasn’t an honest one. Bad guys can’t just become good guys without facing up to the consequences of their actions. Cruelty and selfishness can’t be ignored for the sake of romance. This flaw may seem significant, but it hardly affected my enjoyment of the book. I loved it .
I loved reading a novel by woman author, especially one with a diverse heritage (one which I share in part). I loved that Novik’s heroes were diverse and strong females. Most of all, I loved that her heroines weren’t saved by romance, nor were they saved by individualism and self-sufficiency. They couldn’t save the world by themselves. They need others–their friends, their families, and each other.