Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

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silverThere are dozens of books out there that re-work traditional fairy and folk tales, but few take the kernel of the story and pop it into something completely different. Novik has done that here and produced what will surely be the hit of the summer with fans of fantasy and fairytales.

She has taken the bones from multiple folk and fairy tales and built them into a wholly original and compelling story that is told from several perspectives. Typically in a story with so many protagonists, a couple of them suffer from poor characterization and neglect. No so here. Every character has a role to play, whether it’s our “Queens” Mirayem and Irina, or little Stepon or old Magreta, they all provide the threads that Novik weaves into a luscious, fascinating tapestry of a story.

The base story of Rumpelstiltskin where a maiden must turn straw (in this case, silver) to gold is the foundation of the tale, but Novik weaves in elements of European folktales all over the place: the mountain of glass, the never-ending battle between fire and ice/summer and winter, even the “moneylender” from Shakespeare has a role. Oddly enough, the archetype that kept coming to mind towards the end was of the holiday cartoon characters Heat Miser and Cold Miser, but Novik’s characters are definitely *not* cartoony! The last few chapters could have been that cartoon reworked as an action/adventure movie.

It is the women in this story, though, that you will remember. Mirayem. Irina. Wanda. Magreta. You will cheer them on and take comfort in their strength and cleverness, and you will remember them long after you have finished the book.

While the story is remarkable, this is a loooonnngggg book.  Around 80% through, I admit I started skimming through to the end. Some of the build up to Mirayem’s turning the massive amounts of silver to gold could be trimmed, as could some parts of the early and later chapters. The real action happens in the last quarter, which is where I started to get impatient with the pace of the story. However, story always wins, so this is sure to be on all the “Best of” lists for 2018. Very well done and recommended.

May Micro-Reviews


28A02E25-07BA-4CBD-B1E0-6AEE24541D0DThe Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden by Karina Yan Glaser – The Vanderbeeker kids are back in another charming story about generosity, being a good neighbor, and growing up. This is one of those gentle, feel-good stories where nothing much happens, except real life. The kids witness a beloved neighbor having a stroke, they struggle with their own emotions, and they learn that even kids who appear to have it all often don’t. The Vanderbeekers are definitely “free range” kids, and their adventures in their Harlem neighborhood are the stuff of dreams. The kids are all written beautifully and the family dynamics are definitely something to emulate. This is not a particularly special story in that it’s something “new” but it will be enjoyed by early to middle grade readers who just like to read about other kids.

Publication Date: September 25, 2018
Published by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy

657A0259-7343-412B-A674-DF6D9DD31EA2In the Night Wood by Dale Bailey – Bailey checks all the boxes in this supernatural, psychological thriller of a book: a couple whose marriage is in trouble, a dead child, a mysterious English manor house, a spooky forest, intimidating & creepy manor staff, a past tragedy…and more. Charles, Erin & Lissa are the seemingly perfect family whose life is turned upside down by a truly horrible accident. The psychological strain of that experience coupled with the gothic-horror experience of Hollow House makes for a top-notch, nail-biting, check-under-the-bed thrilling novel. For fans of English folklore, horror, and suspense. Recommended.

Publication Date: October 9, 2018
Published by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy

994C1041-BFDE-4E07-9D99-917BC0590A95Bluecrowne by Kate Milford – As a diehard Greenglass House fan, I eagerly anticipated this prequel to the series, and I am not disappointed. Kate Milford introduces us to a whole new cast of colorful characters who are every bit as entertaining, clever, and quirky as Milo and company. Lucy Bluecrowne is a character for the ages, and I look forward to following her adventures as she grows up. Liao and Xianming are also so intriguing that they deserve another book as well. Milford is well on her way to creating a world in Nagspeake that is every bit as magical and real as J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts. Her writing is full of lovely descriptions, clever and thoughtful dialogue, and plenty of mystery, suspense, action, adventure, and magic. Highly recommended.

Publication Date: October 2, 2018
Published by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Childrens Books Group; Clarion Books
Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy

97EB1610-2008-4809-8637-BEB706E2DBEF Secret History of the Jersey Devil: How Quakers, Hucksters, and Benjamin Franklin Created a Monster by Brian Regan – It seems that creating monsters to distract people from real issues is not something unique to 21st century politics. As a longtime but amateur student of cryptozoology, I am always open to reading new accounts of legends and monsters, so I was eager to learn more about the infamous Jersey Devil. The origin story of Mother Leeds giving birth to an evil, horrifying “monster” that flew up the chimney certainly has its roots in European folklore and fairytales. Those tales were often created to make people do things – e.g. Peg Powler and Jenny Greenteeth were invented to keep children away from rivers and streams, thereby keeping them safe from drowning. In this book, Regal and Esposito take the Jersey Devil out of the New Jersey Pine Barrens and link it to political intrigue and opinion-shaping. What better way to get people to do what you want than to scare the crap out of them? I suppose it’s somewhat comforting to know that such political maneuvering has been going on for hundreds of years without the world ending, which suggests that the current version of the Jersey Devil (immigrants/Muslims) will eventually be replaced with something else. This is not light reading, however, so I will recommend for those who enjoy non-fiction related to politics and history.

Publication Date: March 1, 2018
Published by: Johns Hopkins University Press
Thanks to Edelweiss for the review copy

06FD49B1-679B-46B2-80F7-D50D936D72F1Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson – Leonardo da Vinci has always fascinated me, so this new biography of possibly one of the greatest humans ever to live was something I had to read.  Isaacson delivers a well-crafted look not only into da Vinci’s life but into the culture of the time which certainly shaped his world view and supported his curiosity. It was da Vinci’s insatiable curiosity about everything that first attracted me to him so many years ago, and Isaacson provides a laser view into the mind that envisioned flight, surgery, and so much more. Highly readable, well written, and meticulously researched, this is very much recommended.

Publication Date: October 17, 2017
Published by: Simon & Schuster
Thanks to Edelweiss for the review copy

 

 

 

 

Bear & the Nightingale and Girl in Tower by Katherine Arden


82F05A68-C6D8-4CBF-9BE8-79BC4F3D83F7Folktales speak to us of ancient people, places and things. Dark caverns, spooky forests, mysterious voices that carry on the wind, power over life and death, and so much more. All these things confounded our ancestors, so they created stories to explain the “why” of things like snow, waxing and waning moons, flight of birds, and luck. Those long ago ancestors also believed that there were guardians, or house gods, or chyerti who protected the family from evil…as long as they were fed and cared for and believed in. And that’s where Katherine Arden’s glorious Winternight Trilogy begins.

In Book 1, The Bear and the Nightingale, we meet Vasilisa, the youngest daughter of Pyotr of Lesnaya Zemlya. Vasya, as her family calls her, can see the chyerti who are beginning to fade as the new Christian religion takes hold in Russia. Warned to always care for the chyerti, who keep evil away from the family and village, Vasya continues to practice the “old ways” until her father brings a new stepmother home from Moscow. Anna is a devout Christian who sees evil at every turn, but especially in Vasya, making it hard for Vasya to honor the chyerti. As the chyerti are neglected, an old evil awakens in the form of a monstrous Bear and terrible things begin to happen in the village. Vasya invokes Morozko, the Winter King, to help save her family and village from the Bear and his horrible minions, but also to save herself from a vengeful priest who seeks to burn her as a witch.

Girl in the Tower picks up where Bear & the Nightingale leaves off – with Lesnaya Zemlya safe, and Vasya setting off on her own with the magnificent horse Solvey, gifted to her by the Winter King. Her only wish is to see as much of the world as possible, but she quickly comes to realize just how difficult that will be without assistance. She seeks out the Winter King, who reluctantly helps her on her way, disguised as a boy. Along the way, Vasya stumbles upon her older brother, Sasha, and their cousin Dmitri, the Grand Prince of Moscow and joins forces with them to defeat a greater evil, Kaschei the Deathless. Their quest takes them back to Moscow, where Vasya is reunited with her older sister Olga, the Princess of Serpukhov. Olga lives in Moscow with her husband and children, one of whom has inherited the ability to see the chyerti. Vasya’s adventures in Moscow end in a thrilling showdown with Kaschei, and a very satisfying ending which foreshadows the final entry in the series.

Throughout both novels, Vasya struggles with her intense desire to be free. She doesn’t want to marry, nor does she wish to enter the convent which are the only two options for young women of her time. She relishes the danger and thrill of her relationship with Morozko, the Winter King, and Arden has done a masterful job of creating tension and attraction between the two. Arden has created interesting characters in Bear & the Nightingale, and has spent considerable time fleshing them out in Girl in the Tower. Vasya, Sasha, Dmitri, Olga, and now Marya create a world that will pull you in and envelop you with their spirit. While the story is captivating on it’s own, Arden’s writing is icing on the cake. Lyrical, lush, and full of magic and mystery, it will keep you reading well into the night. Truthfully, I haven’t loved a series as much since I first read Harry Potter. Highly recommended.