Spinning Silver is Naomi Novik's second retelling of a fairy tale. You do not need to read Uprooted before reading Spinning Silver (although I definitely recommend reading Uprooted).
It's hard to put in to words all the things I love about Spinning Silver. This is a slow moving tale with lots of characters. Novik expects you to pay attention; there are many first person narrators and you have to figure out who is speaking - she does not put their names at the start of each transition. The story begins and it builds. It builds and it builds and it builds, and characters are woven into the stories of the other characters and then into the main thread like an elaborate braid.
On page 1 we are told what the story of Rumpelstiltskin is about: "getting out of paying your debts." I thought about this all through the 465 pages that followed. Although the story is predictable in many ways - it is a fairy tale, after all - I had no idea how things were going to happen or resolve.
Three young women of about the same age but different circumstances anchor the stories. Although each has strengths she does not know yet, the women are not strong at the expensive of male characters being weak. Although I like strong female characters, I get tired of the "girl power" narratives that are dismissive of boys and men that are also good and strong. Spinning Silver is not one of those girl power narratives, although there is a LOT of female power.
Fairy tale characters are often caricatures, but Novik goes to the trouble to give depth to her characters. They grow and change. For example, Wanda is a poor girl with an abusive father and two brothers. Their mother is dead, after giving birth to a number of babies who died. She and the babies are buried beneath the white tree. Wanda does not love her brothers: "Love was buried with my mother. Sergey and Stepon were only more of the babies who made my mother sick." (p. 28) "They had taken her from me, all of them: Sergey and Stepon and the rest of those dead boys in the dirt. They had taken my mother. I had never wanted to share her with them. What right did they have to her?" (p. 31) But things begin to change when Wanda saves Sergey's life because Stepon loves Sergey, and eventually Wanda does love and respect her brothers.
Although there are marriages in this book, there are way more kinds of love than romantic love. Love of a parent for a child, of a brother for a sister, of a neighbor for a neighbor, of a mistress for a servant, of a parent for someone else's child. Spinning Silver is filled with toil and trials, but also friendship and honor.
There are bad characters in the book, but there are also complex characters. Even the cruel fae king of winter is just trying to save his people. Even the demon-possessed tsar has reasons for being angry and indifferent.
There is a lot about being Jewish in this book, without being anti anything else. Jews are loathed, but people need the moneylender and the banker and the jeweler all the same. And even this old story is told with a hope for change.
Often in fantasy I either don't understand how the magic works or don't find it believable. Novik builds and layers the magic of her world in a way that I totally bought in to. If there were inconsistencies, I didn't notice them.
Wow, I've really said a lot about this book. If you like thoughtful, slow building, engrossing world building and interesting characters, you may enjoy Spinning Silver, and Uprooted as well. The Galesburg Public Library owns Spinning Silver in print and as an ebook.