BOOKS: Broken relationships

Author Naomi Novik masterfully weaves Jewish and feminist themes into her latest fantasy novel.

A Slavic building (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A Slavic building
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Naomi Novik became one of the 21st century’s biggest stars of fantasy literature with the publication of her Temeraire series, in which she brought dragon warfare into the Napoleonic wars. Three years ago, she took a decidedly different direction with her stand-alone novel Uprooted, a dark and complex fairy-tale inspired by Slavic traditions, owing much to Novik’s own family roots in Eastern Europe.
In her new novel, Spinning Silver, she goes back to the harsh Slavic landscapes, adding a Germanic touch with a Rumpelstiltskin-inspired plot, and above all a Jewish protagonist.
The novel opens with the story of Miryem, the only daughter of a Jewish couple living in a small village on the outskirts of a medieval Slavic kingdom.
Taking over her father’s moneylending business, Miryem proves herself to be exceptionally good in making the village residents pay their long overdue debts, which does not win her or her family many friends. Worse, Miryem’s talent also draws the attention of the Staryk – supernatural beings who have been terrorizing the kingdom. In the course of the plot, Miryem must put all of her dealing skills to the test, time after time, as stakes get higher.
And dealing is what Spinning Silver is all about. Miryem and the novel’s two other protagonists – Wanda, a gentile peasant girl, and Irina, the daughter of a local nobleman – must navigate through perilous paths by negotiating rather than wielding swords, not because it’s their preferred weapon of choice, but rather because they have no choice. In the traditional society portrayed in the novel, dealing and negotiating is a necessary survival skill for a woman who is unwilling to accept the fate determined for her by men.
The oppression of women is masterfully paralleled by Novik to another great evil – antisemitism. Miryem’s success as a moneylender draws superstition- inspired hatred from the gentiles living in her village, and to some this is yet another example of Jewish witchcraft which they despise. Even Wanda, a sympathetic character, is horrified when she witnesses the “magical” enchantment performed by Miryem’s mother, which, in truth, is a simple traditional Jewish blessing over food.
Later, when Miryem’s talent for making money turns into a true Midas touch, it is ruthlessly exploited by another greedy male character. Just like the women in Novik’s book, Jews are an oppressed minority and they are forced into despised professions, like moneylending, and must become highly skilled in these professions, not because they want to but because it’s their only means of survival.
Novik weaves both the feminist and Jewish themes into her story with great skill, switching between her three protagonists’ voices and points of view, eventually bringing them together as they collaborate in attempting to free themselves from the cruel fate that has been determined for them.
Novik tells the bigger story of the kingdom in which the novel takes place with equal skill: It is a place that lost balance in the power struggle between the human and the Staryk population, and this loss of balance is merely a reflection of the broken relationship between men and women, gentiles and Jews.
The solution, according to Spinning Silver, is not the restoration of the old balance, but rather the building of something new. Just as she did in Uprooted, Novik masterfully leads the heroines of Spinning Silver to realize that in order to solve their personal problems, they have to face the problems of the world that surrounds them.
The number of fantasy titles based on Jewish themes and culture is still small, certainly in comparison with fantasy titles based on Christian themes or even themes related to East Asian religions and culture. Spinning Silver is a great example of how a Jewish-themed fantasy should be done. If we’re lucky, it will mark the beginning of a new trend in the genre.