This story is nominated for both a Nebula and a Hugo award, to be announced on May 16th and August 18th, respectively. Click the links above to view the other nominees, and to keep track of the awards themselves.
“You’re all right, dushenka? He didn’t hurt you?” She was safe for another moment, one more moment, and all of life was only moments, after all.
Spinning Silver is the latest standalone fantasy story from acclaimed author Naomi Novik. As a fast fan of her 2015 award-winning Uprooted, I had very high hopes and clear expectations for this book – and Novik shattered each and every one of them.
Novik’s story combines a number of thrilling elements, to great effect. Her characters are wonderfully human, with fully realized hopes, fears, and flaws, in addition to daily lives that are simultaneously recognizable and eerily alien.
The humdrum lives of each of these characters (peasants, farmers, moneylenders, and nobility) are inextricably interlaced with magic. Not only are multiple manifestations of magic at work here, Novik doesn’t go out of her way to over-explain either what magic is at play or how that magic works. They payoff as our understanding grows is powerful, and to the most part we learn about these otherworldly forces along with our POV character – but as that understanding accumulates the body of our knowledge allows us creeping glimpses at a larger picture that no single POV character can see. From beginning to end, this approach at a magical tale achieves stunning realism and breathtaking tension.
Novik doles out the magic and the mystery in small, measured bites. Mystical or otherwise, the day-to-day details are so perfect, so solidly realized, that the reader would be entirely forgiven were they to forget there’s magic at work here at all. Which makes it all the more chilling when it crops up again, plain as day and undeniable as a footprint in fresh snow.
The cast of POV characters is nicely diverse, and shifts over the course of the narrative. Novik strikes a graceful balance when representing differing characters, managing to give each their own voice without making any tonal changes so drastic they break immersion. With so many POV characters on twisting (yet clearly intertwined) paths, another author might struggle to populate each character’s individual lives with their own rich surroundings and supporting relationships – but not Novik. Somehow, each character is at the center of their own full realized world.
Take, for instance, this short rumination from one of our characters on her father, as he prepares to secure for her a marriage:
If it was difficult or unpleasant for me to be married to such a man, very well; it had been difficult and unpleasant for him, after all, to go to war. He had brought our family this high, and it was my duty to bring us higher, if I could; he would not hesitate to spend me as he had spent himself.
How clearly can we see this man, even in these few sentences? Novik’s economy of characterization is truly masterful.
Unexpectedly, the setting Novik chose for this story is heavily reminiscent of another stunning fantasy epic: Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy. Somehow, I came to Spinning Silver completely unaware of the Russian winter setting, and could not shake the comparison throughout this tale. Both stories share much more than setting, and I strongly recommend that fans of this story give Arden’s trilogy a try as well. They make an excellent set; two highly skilled authors tell moving and inventive stories, using similar narrative touchstones in vastly differing ways.