Mean Old World
By Naomi Novik
Naomi Novik’s 2018 Spinning Silver is a standalone fantasy novel.
Miryem Mandelstam comes from a family of Jewish moneylenders in the pocket kingdom of Lithvas. It’s just too bad that her father has no aptitude for the job; he gives loans to anti-Semitic neighbours who have no intention of ever repaying. Miryem’s family lives in abject poverty.
Young Miryem eventually takes her father’s accounts in hand. The people of her nameless village could laugh off her father’s timid requests for payment, but they cannot say no to the determined young woman. Her family fortunes improve dramatically.
This is risky: rich Jews are Jews worth robbing. As it turns out, Miryem attracts the attention of a predator even more dangerous than her neighbours: the king of the Staryks.
Staryks are magical folk with an endless appetite for gold. Humans who cross them deliberately or accidentally die. The best way to deal with the ice demons is to scrupulously avoid them. But Miryem has referred to herself as a “daughter who can turn silver into gold.” That is enough for the Staryk king to take a close interest in her.
The king sets three tests for Miryem. If she can turn three increasingly large amounts of faery silver into gold, then she will be forced to marry the king. If she fails, he will kill her. Having no third option, Miryem complies. Because she has no magic, she arranges for a metalsmith to turn the silver into jewelry she can sell for the necessary gold.
The king did not expect her to succeed. Since she did, the unhappy Staryk has no choice but to marry her before carrying her off to his kingdom of ice and snow. Furthermore, “a power claimed and challenged and thrice carried out is true.” Because she passed the test, what was metaphor becomes reality: Miryem gains the ability to transform silver into gold simply by touching it. Only too late does Miryem discover her new jailor-husband is slowly killing Lithvas by extending its winters and that Miryem’s transmutation is helping this scheme.
In a parallel plot, the jewelry made from faery silver becomes a fabulous dowry for noblewoman Irina. It buys her a marriage with Tzar Mirnatius of Lithvas. What she doesn’t know is that Mirnatius has been possessed by the demon Chernobog, whose sole interest in Irina is as food.
Irina has a smidgeon of Staryk blood. That and the faery silver lets Irina step through a mirror into the Staryk realm, where Miryem gives her refuge. She and Miryem concoct a bold scheme: save Lithvas, free Miryem, and buy off the demon by feeding the king to the Chernobog. There are only two small flaws in this plan. First: if the king dies, so too do all his subjects (who aren’t all evil). The second flaw: demons lie.
Lithvas seems to be populated by people who are either grasping and cruel or negligent and cruel (true of both the humans and the Staryk). There are just enough kind, decent folk to keep Miryem from angry genocide. This does not make for a happy, cheery setting.
I should also note that the plot is driven by bad communication. Staryk consider humans beneath contempt; it never occurs to them to explain their actions to humans. They believe that Lithvas is ruled by their ancient demonic enemy Chernobog … which is only partially correct. The political situation is complicated.
Finally, the author moves the viewpoint from character to character quite freely (the character viewpoints included some I have not mentioned). I found this more than a little distracting. Perhaps a dose of omniscient narrator would have been helpful.
Caveats aside, Novik skillfully weaves her story from unpleasant (although plausible) social conventions, conflicting agendas, and female determination. The women at the centre of the story do their best to survive disappointing families, forced marriages, and predatory supernatural beings.
Readers familiar with her Temeraire series will find this a more polished work. Her prose is engaging, while the world building is much more coherent. Highly recommended.
Spinning Silveris available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo).