Great but not perfect: Naomi Novik – Spinning Silver

Like many other readers, I adored Naomi Novik’s first foray into fairy tale territory in the shape of her novel Uprooted. While not an actual sequel, Spinning Silver is the spiritual successor to that book and so had quite a lot to live up to. It wasn’t as amazing as Uprooted and there were some problems for me that could easily have been fixed, but it was still a great book overall. Not-so-good for Naomi Novik still means worlds above many other authors, after all.

SPINNING SILVER
by Naomi Novik

Published by: Del Rey, 2018
Hardcover: 466 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: The real story isn’t half as pretty as the one you’ve heard.

Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders, but her father’s inability to collect his debts has left his family on the edge of poverty—until Miryem takes matters into her own hands. Hardening her heart, the young woman sets out to claim what is owed and soon gains a reputation for being able to turn silver into gold.
When an ill-advised boast draws the attention of the king of the Staryk—grim fey creatures who seem more ice than flesh—Miryem’s fate, and that of two kingdoms, will be forever altered. Set an impossible challenge by the nameless king, Miryem unwittingly spins a web that draws in a peasant girl, Wanda, and the unhappy daughter of a local lord who plots to wed his child to the dashing young tsar.
But Tsar Mirnatius is not what he seems. And the secret he hides threatens to consume the lands of humans and Staryk alike. Torn between deadly choices, Miryem and her two unlikely allies embark on a desperate quest that will take them to the limits of sacrifice, power, and love.
Channeling the vibrant heart of myth and fairy tale, Spinning Silver weaves a multilayered, magical tapestry that readers will want to return to again and again.

If you’ve read the short story of the same name, collected in The Starlit Wood, then you’ll know exactly how this novel begins. Miryem, the daughter of a rather useless moneylender, takes matters into her own hands. After all, her father may be very good at lending money, but he is rubbish at collecting it – which leaves him and his family in poverty while others thrive with the money he lent them. Miryem will not stand for this unfairness, especially since her mother has taken sick. The way she hardens her heart to the people who owe her father money, the way she gets better and better at her job, it was just so incredibly fun to read. Because you know, as the reader, that although Miryem grows cold and hard, she is still a loving person.

The character I liked even better – although she was completely unnecessary for the entire plot – was Wanda though. She lives with her brothers and their abusive father who, as so many do, owes Miryem’s father money. Wanda sees her chance to get away from her father and starts working for Miryem. She even manages to save up some money for herself without letting her father know. This first act of friendship between Wanda and Miryem (who understands quite well what is going on but doesn’t always say so) made me think this book could actually be as good as Uprooted.

However, there is a third protagonist, Irina, who is also set on her path by her father’s actions. Come to think of it, every one of these girls has to fix things their fathers have broken. Miryem needs to do her father’s job properly, Wanda needs to work to pay her father’s debts, and Irina… well Irina needs to marry the tsar, a man who terrifies her and who may be way more than just an arrogant man – because of her father’s greed.  I liked all three of these girls very, very much. They are quite different but they share resolve and cleverness, something I appreciate much more in a protagonist than pretty looks. None of them are fooled by magic or tricks, and while they may not immediately find a way out of their predicaments, they at least work out a plan and fight for what’s important.

As it turns out, this important thing may be way more than just their individual freedoms. Miryem – who accidentally entered into a bargain with this world’s Rumpelstistkin, a Staryk, a creature of winter and cold, wants to return to the human world. Wanda wants to be free of her father and live a normal life with her brothers, Irina wants to survive whatever lives inside the tsar. Irina and Miryem have to work together to – drumroll – probably save the entire world. What started as a clever retelling of Rumpelstiltskin turns into an epic battle of fire and ice, evil and probably-mostly-evil. It was awesome and the way things are resolved made me cheer!

What I didn’t like and what really diminished the entire story for me were the randomly added viewpoint characters. It starts out with Miryem, Wanda, and Irina alternating chapters. Then suddenly, Irina’s old maid has a viewpoint, Wanda’s brother gets one, but in the middle of chapters so you often don’t know whose head you’re in. These added perspectives unfortunately don’t do anything to further the story and these characters (except maybe Wanda’s brother) are so unimportant that adding their view doesn’t make sense. It really took me out of the book a lot of times and made me almost angry. I don’t care what Irina’s nurse thinks and does – the action is somewhere else, the characters I care for are somewhere else. Get back to Irina and Miryem already!

Another thing I’m unsure about was the romances. There are several, yes, and I kind of really liked one of them (not telling which, though) but I’m unsure about the other. Both relationships start out rather abusive or at least unfriendly. While I could see a slow coming together and growing to know each other with one pair of characters, I felt that the other pair just stayed together for convenience. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked the ending, but I’m just not sure if I should like it.

All things considered, this was a very good book that shows the strength of women fixing problems men created, that puts female friendships front and center, and that has a wonderful layer of epic fantasy world building that I didn’t expect. I hope there will be more fairy tale retellings by Naomi Novik, even though I didn’t love this as much as Uprooted.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good

C. S. E. Cooney – Bone Swans

I knew well before picking this up that I would love this book. Its description and marketing pushed so many of my buttons that there was no way around it. Fairytale retellings, beautiful language, a Kay Nielsen cover… turns out, it’s easy to bait me if you’ve got the right buzz words. It’s also easy to turn me into a fan if you write like Cooney. May the gushing begin.

bone swans

BONE SWANS
by C.S.E. Cooney

Published by: Mythic Delirium Books, 2015
Paperback: 224 pages
Story collection
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: That was the day the sky went dark.

A swan princess hunted for her bones, a broken musician and his silver pipe, and a rat named Maurice bring justice to a town under fell enchantment. A gang of courageous kids confronts both a plague-destroyed world and an afterlife infested with clowns but robbed of laughter. In an island city, the murder of a child unites two lovers, but vengeance will part them. Only human sacrifice will save a city trapped in ice and darkness. Gold spun out of straw has a price, but not the one you expect.

World Fantasy Award winner Ellen Kushner has called Cooney’s writing “stunningly delicious! Cruel, beautiful and irresistible.” BONE SWANS, the infernally whimsical debut collection from C. S. E. Cooney, gathers five novellas that in the words of Andre Norton Award winner Delia Sherman are “bawdy, horrific, comic, and moving-frequently all at the same time.” Cooney’s mentor, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Grand Master Gene Wolfe, proclaims in his introduction that her style is so original it can only be described as “pure Cooney,” and he offers readers a challenge: “Try to define that when you’ve finished the stories in this book.”

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Since this collection of novellas has absolutely blown my mind, I will have to say a little bit about each of the stories featured. The one thing they have in common is Cooney’s lyrical language, although her tone shifts effortlessly from snarky first-person narration to sinister third person post-apocalyptic tones. Her prose isn’t flowery but there is an underlying poetry to every story. And although I preferred some stories over the rest (as with any collection), I enjoyed every single one of them, their diversity, their originality, and the way they were told.

Life on the Sun

This first story was my least favorite of this collection. That doesn’t mean I disliked it, just that what came after blew me away so much that a few flying carpets, a prophecy, and the fantastic world-building of “Life on the Sun” paled in comparison. This story started strange, took a twist that made me believe I knew where it was going, and then twisted again to take me by surprise. I loved how the readers don’t know very much of what’s going on – there is a war and a prophecy and did I mention flying carpets? It’s a great tale, well-rounded with a satisfying ending. But I enjoyed this in a more distant way, if that makes sense.

The Bone Swans of Amandale

Now here’s where it gets going. A mash-up retelling of “The Juniper Tree”, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”, and “The Swan Maiden”, this story shines not only because it utilises several fairy tales and makes something quite new out of them, but also because of the voice. Maurice, a rat who can change his shape, narrates a tale of blood rites and evil mayors and a broken piper. To tell you anything about the plot (other than its fairy tale inspirations) would be telling too much. But Maurice’s voice made for a delightful read, especially when faced with truly horrible things. Dark stuff happens in this story but Maurice, being a rat, and one in love/lust with Dora Rose (a swan princess) at that, manages to keep you smiling through it all. Whenever things may look bad, he makes an obscene comment that will make you chuckle. Another thing that surprised me was how well-drawn all the characters were, even ones that don’t say very much. The piper, who is a bit of a mystery, grew dear to me, and even Dora Rose, in all her aloofness (swans just are that way), became more and more likable. I loved everything about this story and would gladly have read a novel-length version of it.

Martyr’s Gem

Here’s another story that blew my mind. A complete departure from the familiar fairy tale style of “Bone Swans”, this is a tale of revenge, murder, family, and story telling. Shursta is chosen to marry Hyrryai, the beautiful daughter of the most powerful family on their island. Shursta, not being special in any way, soon finds out why he of all people was chosen as he learns Hyrryai’s secret.
This story – which is much shorter than “The Bone Swans of Amandale” packs so much world-building and character development that I could write a whole novel about it. The world-building creeps up on you as you are fed bits and pieces of mythology throughout the story. I loved discovering little snippets of history and lore without any info dumps. It simply came up naturally in the story.
The characters were breathtaking! Shursta is a wonderful protagonist, but it was his sister Sharrar who stole my (and everybody else’s) heart. A natural story teller, she manages to enthrall a room with her voice and there is one lovely scene in this story where she does just that. Reading it felt like being there.
But most touching about this story was probably the way it portrays a chosen family. Shursta and Sharrar are siblings and very close, but they bond with others and create a whole new, bigger family that feels so natural and right that it almost hurt. Again, no spoilers about the plot, but the ending – again – was spot on.

How the Milkmaid Struck a Bargain With the Crooked One

This was my favorite story of the bunch! Told by Gordie, a milkmaid who really enjoys being a milkmaid and taking care of her cow and bull, it is the tale of how her drunken father’s boast gets her into a lot of trouble. He may well say she can spin straw into gold but Gordie, not a drop of magical blood in her, certainly has no idea how to accomplish that feat. And we are right in the middle of a Rumplestiltskin retelling, the likes of which I have never read!
Drawing on mythology as much as the fairy tale, Cooney introduces Fey characters to help our practical heroine along the way. An ugly, crooked little man magics that straw into gold in exchange for the few trinkets of value Gordie possesses. But much more is going on. The kingdom is at war, both with the Fey lands and with itself. And apart from doing the straw-into-gold-trick, Gordie has to figure out an ancient secret.
Again, it was the combination of great storytelling and brilliant voice that made me love this so much. Gordie is absolutely lovable. She curses people, she rhymes by accident, she shows kindness where few others would… and mixed into the best version of Rumplestiltskin ever is even a beautiful romance. I had to take a break from the collection after this because the story gave me a major hangover. My heart!

The Big Bah-Ha

A very strange tale that reads more like horror than fantasy, this takes place in a world where a mysterious plague, the slap-rash, has killed all adults and will take children as soon as they grow too old. In this bleak place, gangs of children fight for survival. Except Beatrice, who has just woken up dead in The Big Bah-Ha, a sort of afterlife that is supposed to make you laugh. It’s a true nightmare, if you ask me, filled with clowns and circus attractions, but twisted and sad and horrifying, all of them. While Beatrice navigates this weird world, her gang seeks help from the mysterious Flabberghast (that is SUCH a cool name for a character, I just can’t get over it!).  Adventure ensues and each character can show their talents, but the Flabberghast totally steals everyone’s show.
Putting this story after “How the Milkmaid…” makes it hard for me to rate it fairly. It took me a bit longer to get into “The Big Bah-Ha”, simply because I didn’t want to let go of Gordie just yet, but once I found my footing – much like Beatrice – I was all in for this sinister, weird story about a strange sort of afterlife.

If I had to rank all the novellas/novelettes in this collection, my list would look like this:

  1. How the Milkmaid Struck a Bargain With the Crooked One
  2. The Bone Swans of Amandale
  3. Martyr’s Gem
  4. The Big Bah-Ha
  5. Life on the Sun

But it must be said, that even my least favorite story was still a great read. I cannot wait to discover more of Cooney’s writing. You can always tell when writers are also poets – there is just a particular kind of melody to their prose and every word feels carefully chosen to fulfill its purpose, but to also sound beautiful. I am completely blown away by the author’s talent and imagination. In about 40 pages per story, she manages to draw up entire worlds, filled with real people, histories, mythologies, and stories. Cooney goes on a shelf with my Cat Valente and Angela Slatter books – that should tell you just how much I have fallen in love with her writing.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to Perfection!

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To get you all hooked as well, here’s where you can read the stories (or excerpts thereof) for free online:

 

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FTF Book Review: Vivian Vande Velde – The Rumpelstiltskin Problem

Yeah yeah, Fairy Tale Frenzy is over but I still owe you a couple of reviews.  This little book of alternate versions of Rumpelstiltskin can be read in one sitting and so was very well suited for my current busy schedule (consisting of work, work, and to even things out, some more work).

rumpelstiltskin problemTHE RUMPELSTILTSKIN PROBLEM
by Vivian Vande Velde

Published by: Harcourt, 2000
Ebook: 128 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Once upon a time, before pizzarias or Taco Bells, there was a troll named Rumpelstiltskin who began to wonder what a human baby would taste like.

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Fairy Tales Retold

  • Rumpelstiltskin

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Have you ever wondered just what was going on when that odd little man with the long name stepped up and volunteered to spin straw into gold for the miller’s daughter? If you stop and think about it, there are some very peculiar and rather hard-to-explain components to the story.
Vivian Vande Velde has wondered too, and she’s come up with these six alternative versions of the old legend. A bevy of miller’s daughters confront their perilous situation in very different ways — sometimes comic, sometimes scary. Most of the time, it’s the daughter who gets off safely, but sometimes, amazingly, Rumpelstiltskin himself wins the day. And in one tale, it is the king who cleverly escapes a quite unexpected fate.

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It’s true that Rumpelstiltskin has quite a few problems. As a child, I may have wondered about why he wanted the miller’s daughter’s firstborn child, but I never paused to think about all the other oddities the tale presents. In the author’s note, Vivian Vande Velde casually counts up all the things that are wrong with the fairy tale. And believe you me, there is very little that’s not wrong with it.

Some of the more striking questions are: Why would the miller say his daughter can spin straw into gold, knowing full well she can’t? Why would Rumpelstiltskin – who can spin straw into gold – accept a gold ring or necklace as payment? What possessed the miller’s daughter to promise him her firstborn child? And what’s with the king, letting the girl spin gold for three nights, immediately marrying her after that, and then never expecting her to spin gold again? It just doesn’t make any sense!

Irumpelstiltskin problem2n six little alternative versions, Vivian Vande Velde explores ideas that make the story a little less ridiculous and more believable, sometimes keeping the magic, sometimes finding perfectly mundane reasons for what happens. You get a Rumpelstiltskin who wants to eat a human baby, just to see what it tastes like. You get a domovoi who just wants his house to be in order, a female Rumpelstiltskin hungry for love, a Rumpelstiltskin who is a pretty elf, and you even get a story or two with no Rumpelstiltskin at all.

I loved every single way Vande Velde turned this story on its head. Mostly, the miller’s daughter isn’t half as stupid as she is in the Grimms’ tale, but sometimes I rooted more for Rumpelstiltskin than for the humans. In the very last version, it is the king who deserves our empathy and needs to outsmart those around him. The author still keeps a distinct fairy tale-ness to her versions (repetition, the number three, magic, and so on), but she updates the characters to smart, logically thinking people with reasons behind their actions.

The language is modern and colloquial. The backflap says “reading level 10+” and I’d say that’s a fair assessment. Children can read this easily, because as fairy tales should, the writing is simple and feels like somebody telling you a quick story before tucking you in at night. That’s why I also believe this would be a great book for reading out loud. The narrator begins each story with “Once upon a time, before bread was plastic-wrapped and sold in supermarkets, there lived a miller named Otto and his daughter, Christina.” or something in that order. It sets the scene to the distant and unknown fairy tale past, but it also grounds the stories in the present.

My favorite part, though, was the sense of humor. It’s clean and family friendly but at times so insightful as to make me chuckle out loud. The hungry Rumpelstiltskin from the first story “A Fairy Tale in Bad Taste” for example, is desperately trying to buy a baby for cooking – without much success at first:

Rumpelstiltskin could not find a single merchant selling baby. The closes he came was a woman who countered by volunteering to sell him her teenager, but even then Rumpelstiltskin doubted it was an entirely serious offer.

Vande Velde also ends her tales in great closing lines which I won’t quote here – at least three of them made me laugh. She knows how to make sure her readers gobble up her words (there aren’t that many, to begin with) and close her book with a big fat smile on their faces.

This little collection may not do outrageously innovative things with narrative, language, or setting. But it makes an old fairy tale, whose true meaning has apparently been lost over the ages, a little more understandable. It adds internal logic to a world of magic and makes each ending all the more satisfying for it.

RATING: 7,5/10  –  Very good

divider1Table of contents:

  1. A Fairy Tale in Bad Taste
  2. Straw Into Gold
  3. The Domovoi
  4. Papa Rumpelstiltskin
  5. Ms. Rumpelstiltskin
  6. As Good as Gold