jump to navigation

Winterheart October 5, 2018

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
Tags: , , , , ,
add a comment

When you clear away the whimsy and Disneyfication, fairytales are pretty terrifying. They are concerned, above all, with survival, and all the tricks their resourceful characters employ to navigate the web of threats and danger they face in a terrifying, incomprehensible, and unyielding world. Contemporary reworkings of these fairytales that grasp this dark heart that lurks at the centre of enchanted forests are an absolute joy to read. Naomi Novik has done just that with Spinning Silver, her second novel that draws on fairytales for inspiration. In it, she takes familiar fairytale tropes: an unbreakable bargain with an unknowable, capricious otherworldly being, a brave woman forced to reckon with marriage to a monster, and poor children, starving in a frozen, famished landscape, given sustenance as a reward for their innate goodness, and gives them depth and complexity. Whether you like her take on these tales is going to depend a lot on how much you enjoyed her previous fairytale-inspired fantasy, Uprooted, as both involve very similar character dynamics and resolutions to their stories’ conflicts. Luckily for me, I adored Uprooted — and found Spinning Silver, if anything, even more to my taste.

Cover - Spinning Silver

In this new work, Novik weaves the stories of three brave, resourceful women, living in the harsh landscapes of pre-modern Lithuania. There is Irina, a noblewomen dealing with forced marriage to the Tsar, whose cruel behaviour hides an even darker secret. Wanda, a peasant girl, is struggling to keep herself and her younger brothers fed after the death of their mother and in the face of their father’s alcoholism and abuse. And, at the heart of the story is Miryem, the daughter of an unsuccessful moneylender who is struggling to keep her family afloat amidst poverty and antisemitism. The three women’s stories interweave, and in different ways all three become embroiled in the supernatural, which sits uneasily beside the human world, always threatening to intrude, with destructive consequences.

Novik has chosen Rumplestiltskin as the frame on which to hang her own broader story, and she gets right to the dark heart of this fairytale (which, like all fairytales, has incredibly disturbing undertones when you read it closely), bringing its themes of unequal bargains and exchange to the fore. In her own tale of Jewish moneylenders and superstitious villagers, mercantile ability and honest bargains are made heroic and magical, with Miryem’s skills that she developed as a moneylender (in marked contrast to her father’s lack of success in this area) saving both the human and supernatural worlds from myriad dangers. Miryem’s mercantile work sits beside the novel’s more general emphasis on the day-to-day work of everyday people, particularly women, with this work constantly reiterated as heroic and life-saving. Irina, who, as the wife of a tsar can hardly be said to be an everyday person, is nevertheless saved countless times by skills built up in women’s spaces, such as castle fireplaces where groups of women congregate to embroider and sew clothes. Meanwhile, Wanda’s hard labour with outdoor farmwork and indoor housework is equally valorised, and the novel also emphasises that the steps she takes to appease and placate her violent father and deflect his anger and abuse are a kind of labour of their own, one which takes its toll. And, in the novel’s exploration of another kind of marginalisation, Spinning Silver makes the point that living with the horrifying threat of anti-Semitism, the ever present fear that their peaceful neighbours will at any moment turn on them as a howling, violent mob, is an experience that, sadly, will aid its Jewish characters in dealing with other, more supernatural dangers.

There were so many fabulous little details that gave the world of Spinning Silver a truly lived-in feeling, but what I most appreciated were those which emphasised Miryem’s identity as an observant Jewish woman. Rather than fearing that eating otherworldly food will bar her way to the human world forever, she worries if the food is kosher (it turns out to be uncooked fruit, and thus safe). Her fears at being unable to measure the passage of time in the otherworld are less because she fears returning to the human world hundreds of years later, but rather because she needs to know when to observe Shabbat. Rather than being viewed as a barrier to Miryem’s participation in magical, supernatural adventures, her Jewish identity is a source of strength. Similarly, in a genre rife with dead mothers (and, to be fair, Spinning Silver does have its share of these), it was refreshing to observe the warm, supportive relationship between Miryem and her very much alive mother, as well as that of Irina and her former nurse, who was something of a maternal stand-in.

This is a world in which women save themselves — and each other — using the tools at hand. It is a world in which the work of a market stall seller, or a noblewoman presiding over a rowdy feasting hall, or a girl feeding chickens is given equal weight to magical powers. Indeed, it’s a world in which supernatural beings view prosaic, human skills as having a kind of magic of their own. In other words, in Spinning Silver Novik has married two of my favourite tropes: ordinary ‘women’s work’ made heroic, and supernatural beings viewing ordinary human skills as magical and powerful. It’s an absolute joy to read, and I very much hope Spinning Silver is not her last foray into fairytale-inspired fantasy fiction.

Advertisements

I’ll link you more with every breath, truly, madly, deeply do May 22, 2015

Posted by dolorosa12 in linkpost.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

So. Lots of stuff to get through this week, as my corner of the internet has been particularly full of people doing wonderful, clever and awesome things.

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz had a busy week. Here’s Rochita on the uses of anger, her new short story, and being interviewed for Lightspeed magazine’s author spotlight.

Catherine Lundoff has had so many submissions to her ‘Older Women in SFF’ recommendations post that she’s had to split it into two. Part one, part two.

I really liked this review of Zen Cho’s writing by Naomi Novik.

This review by Sarah Mesle of the most recent episode of Game of Thrones made a lot of points I’ve been struggling to articulate. Content note for discussion of violence, abuse and rape.

I really appreciated this thoughtful post by Tade Thompson on safety, community and dissent.

Natalie Luhrs makes some really important points here:

This is part of the ongoing conversation about the importance of different voices in our community. About making space for people who have been told–explicitly and implicitly–that what they have to say isn’t worthwhile and that they need to sit down and listen and that someday, maybe, they’ll be allowed to speak.

This list of Best Young Australian novelists looks great, and reflects the Australia that I grew up in. Congratulations to all the winners!

I have to admit that the #hometovote hashtag has been making me cry.

I wrote two longish posts this week. One is here at the Geata: a review of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The other is over on LJ/Dreamwidth, and is a primer to Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas trilogy.

My mother is a radio journalist. Her programme this week is on Eurovision, and you can listen to it here (not geoblocked). There are additional features here. I am an unashamed Eurovision fan, and as you can see, it runs in the family.

Texts from Hieronymous Bosch made me laugh and laugh.

Happy Friday, everyone.