While I definitely grew up with all the normal fairy tales that inspired Disney movies, I also remember Rumpelstilzchen (German version) leaving a deep impression. I can’t remember if it was because the story creeped me out (I mean, he tears himself in two when he loses the deal) or if I thought there was something unjust about the treatment of either him or the spinner’s daughter but I certainly thought it was an interesting choice when he became such a central figure in Once Upon a Time’s spin on fairy tales.
At its most basic, Spinning Silver is a retelling of Rumpelstilzchen with elements of history and other folktales. In this case, Miryem plays both the miller’s daughter of the story and her own Rumpelstilzchen as she actually does turn silver into gold without any help but her own intelligence and ability to make a deal. It is told from the perspective of three young women in very different circumstances, with the occasional chapter from another viewpoint thrown in. On the one hand, this is very much a fantastical land with the presence of the Staryk, magical, powerful creatures, but other parts are absolutely influenced and inspired by history. I loved Novik’s parallel of Rumpelstilzchen and money lenders, who of course were historically Jewish. Of course, Christian story tellers would cheer on the blond woman who didn’t hold up her end of the deal and instead found a way to trick him out of the things he had legitimately earned. As the Jewish family in their village, Miryem and her parents are disrespected, charged more than everyone else in the village, and her father’s kindness is seen as weakness to be taken advantage of.
Once Miryem takes over the family business, she no longer lets lack of money get in the way of debt collection, and uses goods and labor as exchange, leading to Wanda’s position as a maid in their home. Little does Miryem know, but rather than resenting the work, Wanda sees it as a blessing since it means she is too valuable to be sold off into marriage by her drunkard father.
The final woman is a local duke’s daughter. Irina is mostly plain, certainly not a beauty as her father may have hoped for, but he still angles to position her in front of the emperor and turn himself into the emperor’s father-in-law, especially once he buys some jewelry made of Staryk silver which has a rather bedazzling effect on viewers.
It is during a carriage ride with her mother that Miryem makes an off hand remark about turning silver into gold when describing a deal she made, which leads to the attention of the Staryk king who sets three tasks to her for turning his silver into gold. Her reward – his hand in marriage, though this most certainly is not a reward she desires.
The three women’s lives intersect as they realize they may be able to use their individual issues to solve themselves. While the Staryk king may be the obvious enemy, there is a much larger threat hidden in plain sight – a threat that the duke’s daughter is confronted with when she gets the fairy tale ending her father wants. While the women may believe they are making the best choices for the situations they are facing, Novik also shows that there are not always easy answers.
I know some readers thought Novik’s previous fairy tale inspired novel, Uprooted, was slightly problematic due to the nature of the relationship between the wizard and his protégé. While I think this novel handles the power dynamics of relationships a bit better from that perspective by focusing more on actions rather than developing sexual tension, I actually preferred the overall story of Uprooted. This one is definitely still good, and I really liked the way she weaved in persecution and intolerance of Jews into the story, but the other one was just more fun for me? So intellectually I appreciated this one more, but emotionally connected better with Uprooted.