Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik (author), Lisa Flanagan (narrator)

Random House Audio, July 2018

Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders. Wanda is the daughter of a local farmer, drunken and abusive, who borrowed six kopeks from Miryem's father, without any real intention to pay it back.

Because Miryem's father isn't a very good moneylender. He's far too soft-hearted to collect what he's owed when presented with a hard luck story. Miryem manages to take over the business, enforcing fair repayment plans on their unfriendly neighbors. With Wanda's father, this is Wanda's labor assisting first her mother in the house, and later in the collection of debts owed.

Irina is the daughter of the duke in the city where Miryem's grandfather lives, a wealthy man because he's a much better moneylender. She's the daughter of his first wife, descended from the Staryk, the fae-like creatures living in a kingdom of ice just out of phase with the kingdom of Lithvas. Irina pleasant-looking but not beautiful, and her stepmother has done the essential task of producing sons. We don't meet her until later.

Miryem becomes a very good moneylender, and on a visit to her grandfather, she shows him her books and discusses her practices with him. He gives her a purse of silver coins, as a loan, and, on her next visit, she returns it to him filled with gold coins.

This is the beginning of her reputation for turning silver into gold. That reputation reaches the ears of the king of the Staryk, fae-like creatures living in a kingdom of ice. The Staryk king wants gold, we don't know why, and he's high-handed, but proves willing to bargain for what he wants.

Miryem wants respect and safety for her family, for which her only instrument is her success as a moneylender. Wanda wants to protect her younger brothers, and to be out from under the abusive control of her father.

Irina, the duke's daughter, wants not to become an unpaid servant in the house of one of her stepbrothers when they are grown. Not being thought beautiful enough to be of value in marrying off in a political bargain, she doesn't have any other prospects.

Until, suddenly, the Tsar of Lithvas wants to marry her. This is terrifying; she's seen him commit too much casual cruelty over the years, and his sudden insistence on marrying her makes no sense to her.

All of these women, at three different levels of society, are struggling against some degree of oppression from the men who should protect and support them. Miryem has the love of her father, mother, and grandparents, but her father's inability to be firm with their debtors himself places a tremendous burden on her. Wanda's father is actively abusive, to the point that having her labor traded away to Miryem's family improves her life, and enables her to somewhat improves her younger brothers', too. Irina's only love and support comes from her former nurse, now chaperone.

The answers to the mysteries of why the Staryk want so much gold, and why the Tsar suddenly wants to marry Irina, turn out to be terrifying.

All three of the young women grow and mature, and learn more about the world than they ever suspected. The solutions to their problems are also frightening, and bind the three of them into an alliance.

The story is familiar and not familiar, rooted in a familiar fairy tale, and yet not that story at all. The characters are compelling, distinctive, and beautifully developed. The story is told entirely in first person, with Miryem, Wanda, and Irina the main narrators, but other characters also having their turns. Every voice is so distinctive that there is never more than a couple of lines before it's completely clear who is speaking. This is Novik's writing, but for the audiobook, Flanagan's narration also is excellent on this.

Highly recommended.

I bought this audiobook.

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