Naomi Novik makes old stories new again
I first got hooked on Naomi Novik’s fantastic (in all senses of the word) writing with His Majesty’s Dragon, an imaginative novel whose plot could most succinctly be described as “The Napoleonic Wars, but with dragons.” That book bloomed into an eventual nine-book series; though I read all of them out of affection for the primary dragon character Temeraire and his human comrade Will Laurence, the first tells a complete and utterly satisfying tale.
A few years ago, when I found that Novik had published a new book outside of the Temeraire universe, I was intrigued. That book was Uprooted (Del Rey, 2015), and it’s a magical (again, in all senses of the word) story about the age-old battle between good and evil.
Ever since she was a small child, Agnieszka has known that one girl child from her birth year will be chosen by the Dragon, the valley’s resident (human) wizard, to be his companion for 10 years. Every girl who has been so chosen has ended up leaving the valley forever when her service is over, and the younger girls live in dread of leaving their famlies never to return. At least Agnieszka can take comfort in the fact that everyone expects the Dragon to choose her best friend Kasia, the most beautiful girl in the valley, when the day comes.
You see where this is going, right? The Dragon chooses Agnieszka to come live in his tower, to everyone’s surprise and seemingly against his own will. Once there, she makes a mess of everything the Dragon tries to teach her, until she discovers (to her shock) that she herself is capable of performing magic, though she doesn’t understand how it works or how to control it. She’s soon called upon to use her newfound power in a series of adventures to save Kasia, the valley, and the kingdom’s Queen, who has been trapped in the evil Wood for decades. But the powerful forces at work threaten to destroy not only Agnieszka and her beloved home valley but the kingdom itself if she and the Dragon aren’t able to root out and destroy the source of the evil once and for all.
I loved this book, which has strong elements of classic Eastern European fairy tales (the author thanks her Polish grandmother for telling her the stories of Baba Jaga throughout her childhood). One of the most enjoyable elements was that despite the familiarity of many elements of the story, the ways in which Novik employs them felt fresh and unpredictable. The action is episodic and yet builds elegantly on itself in a way that feels completely organic. The characters were suitably appealing or hateful as required, and the evil appropriately menacing and merciless. I was a bit concerned when the epic Battle to End All Battles ended with a chunk of book left to read, but Novik provided a suitable coda that didn’t feel tacked on or anticlimactic as so many do.
As perfect as I found Uprooted, I was a little bit leery when I saw Spinning Silver (Del Rey, 2018) on the shelf last year. It’s not a sequel, but it follows in the same vein of offering a new take on an old fairy tale — in this case, the story of Rumpelstiltskin, who helped a miller’s daughter spin straw into gold in exchange for her firstborn child. At the center of Novik’s version is Miryem, a young Jewish girl who is forced to take over the family’s money-lending business from her father, a man too kindhearted to earn enough money to support his family. Miryem learns how to be tough but fair to the villagers who seek her help, and manages to succeed beyond mere subsistence.
It seems to be a more-or-less idyllic life until word of her success spreads beyond the village, and Miryem is commanded by the king of the fairy people to turn silver into gold, upon threat of death. What the silver signifies, why the Staryk need so much gold, and how Miryem will walk the tightrope between two worlds is magic all its own in Novik’s hands. I loved the way Novik ties together the storylines of three unusual women: Besides Miryem, we also meet Wanda, a village girl who comes to work for Miryem’s family to pay off her abusive father’s debts, and Irina, daughter of the local duke who finds herself in a dangerous marriage. Each of the women faces her own demons, but they all must come together if any of them are to survive.
I don’t want to say much more, because every reader deserves to discover the delights hidden between these two covers for themselves, but suffice to say that my fears were unfounded. Spinning Silver is more than a worthy follow-up to Uprooted, and both deserve a place on the shelf of any reader who still believes in fairy tales.