One of the unusual things that Naomi Novik does in Spinning Silver — so unusual, in fact, that I can’t think of another fantasy book that does it — is to state that some of her main characters are Jews. The first chapter lays out the hints: the characters are moneylenders in a small town whose other contextual clues point to it being in an analog of Eastern Europe; they are held separate from most of the other townspeople, who cheat them when they can; the main characters celebrate a different mid-winter holiday than their neighbors. They are not named as Jewish until the third chapter, when they go visit more prosperous extended family in the nearest city.
Another unusual thing that Novik does is to show unsentimentally what it meant to be poor in the kind of medieval setting common to many fantasy novels. This is not the Shire of mushrooms, elevenses and gentleman farmers. This is a family running out of food at the end of winter because the mother has died, the father is an alcoholic and sold the kid goat for drink, so not only was there no meat from it, the mama goat stopped giving milk.
Miryem, the first first-person narrator of Spinning Silver, is the daughter of the only Jewish family in a small town so unimportant it does not even have a proper name. Her father is the local moneylender, but he is too kind, or perhaps too softhearted, to be very good at it. The villagers bully him, and pay back as little as possible. But the year that she turns sixteen, the winter is colder than ever before, her mother is ill, there is no money for medicine, and they are scraping together wood for candles, having burned the last of the oil. Miryem goes through her father’s books, finds out what everyone owes, and sets out before dawn to go collecting.
They tried to put me off, of course, some of them laughed at me. … I stood on their doorsteps, and I brought out my list, and I told them how much they had borrowed, and what they had paid, and how much interest they owed besides.
They spluttered and argued and some of them shouted. No one had ever shouted at me in my life: my mother with her quiet voice, my gentle father. But I found something bitter inside myself, something of that winter blown into my heart: the sound of my mother coughing, and the memory of the story the way they’d told it in the village square many times, about a girl who made herself a queen with someone else’s gold, and never paid her debts. I stayed in their doorways, and I didn’t move. My numbers were true, and they and I knew it, and when they’d shouted themselves out, I said, ‘Do you have the money?’ (pp. 9–10)
She takes small amounts, she takes payment in kind, she takes payment in labor. But those who owe have to begin to discharge their debts, and they have to keep on doing it. “After that, I was the moneylender in our town. And I was a good moneylender, and a lot of people owed us money, so very soon the straw of our floor was smooth boards of golden wood, and the cracks in our fireplace were chinked with good clay and our roof was thatched fresh … That part of the old story turned out to be true: you have to be cruel to be a good moneylender. But I was ready to be as merciless with our neighbors as they’d been with my father.” (p. 11)
She says she didn’t take firstborn children exactly, but describes going out into the countryside to visit a family where the father had borrowed a sum he would never be able to repay even “if he made a crop every year of the rest of his life.” (p. 12) She demands that the family’s daughter work for her, earning half a penny each day until such a time as the debt is discharged. Miryem’s newfound hardness upsets and saddens her parent. “[M]y father tried to say something to me quietly, stumbling over the words; I’d done enough, it wasn’t my work, tomorrow I’d stay home. I didn’t look up from shelling the hazelnuts, and I didn’t answer him, holding the cold knotted under my ribs. I thought of my mother’s hoarse voice … After a little while he trailed off. The coldness in me met him and drove him back, just as it had when he’d met it in the village, asking what he was owed.” (p. 13) What will Miryem do with her coldness? That is one of the main questions of Spinning Silve
The next first-person narrator is Wanda, the daughter whose work Miryem has claimed. Wanda’s household is the one with the alcoholic father, and the mother dead these last five years with two living brothers and small stones by the white tree for the five other babies who had not lived long enough to walk. Miryem’s demand comes as a deliverance because Wanda’s father had recently decided that sixteen was old enough for her to be married. After the first day’s work:
[Miryem] put out plates on the table, and laid one for me, which I didn’t expect. The moneylender [i.e., Miryem’s father] said a magic spell over the bread when we sat down, but I ate it anyway. It tasted good.
I tried to do as much as they could, so they would want to me to come back. Before I left the house, the moneylender’s wife said to me in her cough-hardened voice, ‘Will you tell me your name?’ After a moment, I told her. She said, ‘Thank you, Wanda. You have been a great help.’ After I left the house, I heard her saying I had done so much work, surely the debt would be paid soon. I stopped to listen outside the window.
Miryem said, ‘[Wanda’s father] borrowed six kopeks! At half a penny a day she’ll be four years paying it off. Don’t try to tell me that’s not a fair wage when she gets her dinner with us.’
Four years! My heart was glad as birds.” (pp. 19–20)
Exploitation, liberation, two sides of the same carefully weighed coin.
The town is not only on the road from Vysnia to Minask and on the river that runs south to warmer climes, it’s also close, uncomfortably close, to a Staryk road. Miryem tells of an encounter when she was a young girl:
One time, we heard the hooves behind us as they came off their road, a sound like ice cracking, and the driver beat the horses to get the cart behind a tree, and we all huddled there in the well of the wagon among the sacks, my mother’s arm wrapped around my head, holding it down so I couldn’t be tempted to take a look. They rode past us and did not stop. It was a poor peddler’s cart, covered in dull tin pots, and Staryk knights only ever came riding for gold. The hooves went jingling past, and a knife-wind blew over us, so when I sat up the end of my thin braid was frosted white, and all of my mother’s sleeve where it wrapped around me, and our backs. But the frost faded, and as soon as it was gone, the peddler said to my mother, ‘Well, that’s enough of a rest, isn’t it,’ as if he didn’t remember why we had stopped.
‘Yes,’ my mother said, nodding, as if she didn’t remember either, and he got back up onto the driver’s seat and clucked to the horses and set us going again. I was young enough to remember it afterwards a little… (pp. 4–5)
The Staryk bring the winter, leave forgetfulness, and desire gold most of all. They raid for it, taking gold and lives as casually as a snowstorm.
And the year I [Miryem] turned sixteen, the Staryk came, too, during what should have been the last week of autumn, before the late barley was all the way in. They had always come raiding for gold, once in a while; people told stories of half-remembered glimpses and the dead they left behind. But over the last seven years, as the winters worsened, they had grown more rapacious. There were still a few leaves clinging to the trees when they rode off their road onto ours, and they went only ten miles past our village to the rich monastery down the road, and there they killed a dozen of the monks and stole the golden candlesticks, and the golden cup, and all the icons painted in gilt, and carried away that golden treasure to whatever kingdom lay at the end of their own road.
The ground froze solid that night with their passing, and every day after that a sharp steady wind blew out of the forest carrying whirls of stinging snow. (pp. 6–7)
Through that winter and into the next year, Miryem’s lending prospers. She gives Wanda more responsibility, and pays her more. Her grandfather, a wealthy man in Wysnia, increases her capital so that she can lend more in a wider area. Soon he praises her as someone to whom he gave a purse full of silver and returned it full of gold. During their journey back from the city, Miryem’s mother cannot hide her misery at how her daughter is changing. Miryem cannot stand it.
‘Would you rather we were still poor and hungry?’ I burst out to her finally. ‘My darling, my darling, I’m sorry,’ [she said] weeping a little.
‘Sorry?’ I said. ‘To be warm instead of cold? To be rich and comfortable? To have a daughter who can turn silver into gold?’ I pushed away from her.
‘To see you harden yourself to ice, to make it so,’ she said. I didn’t answer her … [The driver] was speaking urgently to his horses: a silver gleam had appeared between the trees in the distance, the Staryk road peeking out. The horses trotted on more swiftly, but the Staryk road kept pace with us all the way home, shining between the trees. I could feel it on my side, a shimmer of colder wind trying to press against me and piece through to my skin, but I didn’t care. I was colder inside than out. (pp. 36–37)
Silver into gold! Words spoken in haste, in heat, heedless of who else might hear. At least two unheeded sets of ears heard Miryem’s assertion. The driver, who tries to rob them on a future trip. Far more menacingly, the Staryk have heard of Miryem’s prowess; they desire gold more than anything else, and they have skill, ruthlessness and magic at their command to take it.
Soon Miryem is bargaining for her life with a Staryk lord, promising to change silver into gold three times for him. If she succeeds, he will make her his queen; if she fails, he will freeze her blood and use the Starky ability to induce forgetfulness in mortals to ensure that no one recalls her — a particularly horrific fate in the Jewish tradition.
A lesser author would have limited the story to Miryem’s contest with the Staryk lord, but for Novik this is just the opening for an interlocking set of conflicts, all of them questions of bargains and of debts. At every level of both human and Staryk society there are prices owed, some things that can never be paid, and consequences for bargains undertaken knowingly and unknowingly. Novik gradually broadens the scope from the nameless town to nearby Wysnia, where bargains are made among families, among the lords who decide the fate of the realm; the tsar visits from Koron, only to reveal that he is more tied by debt than most, and not merely of a financial kind. The Staryk kingdom, for all of its icy grandeur and strangeness, offers yet another set of debts and prices, incomprehensible at first to an outsider, and then just as compelling as the mortal world. This, too, is a song of ice and fire, of promises made before the makers knew what the full price of keeping them would be.