Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

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Naomi Novik spins gold in this excellent new standalone novel, which perfectly captures the essence of Slavic fairy tales while doing an excellent job of turning the classical Rumplestiltskin tale on its heels.

Novik’s previous novel, Uprooted, was a 2015 favourite of mine. Novik’s love for Slavic folklore shined through. For the first time had I read an author who recaptured that very special feeling of magic and wonder which I hadn’t felt since those childhood nights spent listening to my grandmother tell Russian and Bulgarian fairy talesBeyond the nostalgia lay a very atmospheric, character-driven story that is well-worth the read. If you haven’t read it but would like to know more, I have a short recommendation for you! 

Uprooted left me wanting more of the same, and in Spinning Silver, I got it–and so much more. A fully realized story which goes down an unexpected road, with characters you’ll quickly grow fond of, a world covered in winter’s magic, and to top it all off…one hell of a memorable last line!

Naomi Novik went to great lengths to work on presenting the Jewish moneylender stereotype in a different light, and did admirable work with it. Antisemitism is a major theme in this book, and it is handled very well, owed to the author’s Jewish heritage and skill, both.

This novel contains six viewpoints, three major and three minor ones. All are told in the first person which isn’t anywhere near as confusing as you might think. That clarity is owed to the fact that Spinning Silver starts off with one character and introduces the viewpoints of the others at very logical points in the story. More on that later.

Miryem is the very first character the novel introduces us to; she is not only its first main character but also the engine of the story. She is a Jew, the daughter of a bad moneylender and the granddaughter of a great one. Without giving away too much, Miryem becomes a moneylender herself–and an excellent one at that. While collecting her debts, Miryem meets Wanda, the lone daughter of the town drunk and unknowingly gives her an ounce of freedom by demanding her father’s debt be paid with Wanda’s services as a maid.

Wanda sees the world in a simpler way than Miryem does. The language of her PoV sections is simpler, less colourful, as you’d expect from the daughter of a poor farmer. She is strong, though, possessing the kind of strength a young girl needs in order to survive her mother’s passing at an early age. I enjoyed her development. Some serious personal growth there, making this young lady a lot more likable by the end. Some of her scenes dragged along a bit but I hardly mind.

Irina is the third main character in the book, and she’s excellent. Her moral choices are delightfully gray and very clever, after a fashion. She too grows a lot — from the sole daughter of a moderately powerful duke with neither looks nor any great talent, to a powerful woman whose choices shape her very nation, and more.

Miryem is this story’s Rumplestiltskin, spinning coins of silver into gold not by employing magic, wink, but by her own wits and the occasional trickery. The road she goes down on isn’t an easy one, and it’s far from one her parents appreciate.

“My darling, my darling, I’m sorry.”
Sorry? To be warm instead of cold? To be rich and comfortable? To have a daughter who can turn silver into gold?
“To see you harden yourself to ice, to make it so.”

It’s a very powerful road Miryem goes on early in the novel, from a kind but starving girl  freezing every winter because her father can’t ever force himself to take a stand against his neighbours, those who owe him money; to a young woman who takes what she is owed, threatening and cajoling and bending the truth to get what she is owed and build off it, I loved her arc most of all.

Boastful of her skill, Miryem unwittingly summons unwanted attention; the Staryk, creatures of ice and winter, thieves and hoarders of gold, pillagers and even rapists. As luck would have it, Miryem doesn’t attract any old Staryk, but their king. He gives her three tasks, and a promise: To turn her heart to ice if she fails, or make her his queen if she succeeds.

See what I mean? Engine of the story.

Mild Spoilers Ahead:

I absolutely loved the character of the Staryk king, both at the beginning and towards the end of his appearances; I disliked only the parts where he acted like a petulant child. The Staryk culture, their home, their inhuman nature — I loved all those. I wonder if they are partially inspired by the Wild Hunt.

The Staryk came closer and took it from me. He didn’t pour the purse out: it was too full for that. Instead he dipped his hand inside and lifted out a handful of gold to tumble ringing back into the bag through his fingers, until there was only one last coin held between his white-gloved fingers, shining like sunlight. He frowned at it, and me. “It’s there, all sixty,” I said. My heart had slowed, because I suppose it was that or burst. “As it must be,” he said. “For fail me, and to ice you shall go, though my hand and crown you shall win if you succeed.” He said it as if he meant it, and also angrily, although he had set the terms himself: I felt he would almost have preferred to freeze me than get his gold. 

SPOILERS: The Miryem/Staryk story felt like a bit of a rehash of the Agnieszka/Dragon romance from Uprooted without packing the punch that relationship had due to a lot more ‘screen-time,’ if you will. I enjoyed it but it was the one thing in the novel that was familiar, expected and safe to bet on.

Speaking of descriptions, this book does them really well. All of them. I didn’t feel like any of them slowed down the story.

Spinning Silver transported me into its magical world; I read it for five hours straight only to fall asleep, wake up and finish it after two more hours. Truly the kind of book to miss dinner AND breakfast over. My recommendation? Read it. There’s so much packed inside — references and winks to so many myths, memorable characters forced to use their wit to survive, and loads more well worth experiencing!

It’s escapism, pure and simple, and magical to boot.

You’ll enjoy this book if you:

  • are an Ice Elf who’s looking to apply for a Wild Hunt scholarship;
  • are a lover of Slavic folklore;
  • enjoyed Uprooted and want something that captures the same feeling, while being very different, for the most part;
  • love good escapism;
  • and more! Prob’ly.

 

Book Review: Melokai by Rosalyn Kelly: The Good, The Bad, The Meh

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I received Melokai for free as part of r/fantasy’s TBRindr initiative, meant to popularize and highlight the works of independently published authors.

Melokai’s opening held a great deal of promise, which could’ve propelled the story forward. Unfortunately, this novel didn’t ultimately deliver on the promises made, both by its opening and its cover. Before I get down to the Good, Bad and Meh, I would like to state that this review represents only my opinion of Melokai. Although my opinion leans to the negative, many have enjoyed this world and the last thing I want to do is belittle the author’s labour in putting together this novel. It is my hope to provide what amounts to constructive criticism below.

With that in mind, let’s jump into the specifics!

THE BAD

  • Melokai Ramya: A novel lives or dies by its lead and the eponymous Melokai is not a character whose headspace I enjoyed sharing. She is often cruel–and casually so, for no other purpose than cruelty’s sake, best displayed when she orders an ambassador castrated and his tongue cut for being too presumptuous.
    Cruelty alone makes for an unlikable character but it’s okay for the main character to be unlikable, especially at the start of a novel. Gully Foyle was unlikable for a good portion of “Tiger!Tiger!”, and Senlin of more recent “Books of Babbel” fame also started off as unlikable, only to grow to be one of my favourite protagonists in recent years. No, what makes Ramya a bad character is the fact that I didn’t buy into her believability.
    Very early on, the novel as much as tells us this is a woman among women, a skilled and wise leader who’s led her nation of female mountain warriors for twelve years. The moment she falls for a savage, all that goes out of the window, in a time of crisis when her country needs her most.  I suspect it was the author’s intent to write someone conflicted between love and duty; execution falls well short of that. Ramya comes off as the main architect of her own destruction (and of everything she holds dear), with virtually all problems that befall her a result of her inaction. I can see the potential of this idea–I love seeing characters come undone under the weight of their mistakes(take for example Roland of Gilead, the protagonist of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series)–but the decisions Ramya made didn’t engage me in any meaningful way. The fact that very little happens with this supposed legendary warrior until the last few chapters doesn’t help.
  • The Dialogue: Too many characters read similar, came off as bland, and the choice of words didn’t fit the world of the novel.
  • Most PoV characters suffer from the same issues the Melokai does — they’re self-absorbed, never change or grow in a real, convincing way.
  • Gratuitous sexual content: I appreciate sexual content in novels when it has a purpose. A well-placed scene of the sexual act can be used to the benefit of a story — Joe Abercrombie’s “Best Served Cold” has an excellent scene which furthers both the inter-character conflict and the entire plot of the novel. Melokai’s sex scenes are often brutal and shocking while offering the plot very little of significance. Explicit sex content may be a mainstay in grimdark fantasy but
  • The Writing Style: Simple and too lean by far for my tastes.
  • SPOILERS: The ending, in which the Melokai, while fighting to save her beloved and her newborn baby’s life, decides to toy with a particularly grating princeling instead of cutting him down with the ease she’s able to. This scene had me fuming since it was the first time since the beginning of the book during which I was actively engaged with what was happening; until, of course, what little of Ramya’s personality I bought into was overwritten by something I can’t ever buy in the mother of a newborn — the decision to play with an opponent when she could’ve cut him down. 

THE MEH

  • V: The only human character I was interested in, V did not share all the problems I had with other PoV characters.
  • The Swear Words: Despite years of Pavlovian-like training under Brandon Sanderson and Brian McClellan’s made-up swear words, I still don’t find them particularly endearing. “Zhaq” did nothing for me, nor did the other terms.
  • The Wolves: Interesting but difficult to visualize at times.

THE GOOD

  • A great many good ideas: Though the execution is sloppy as I’ve discussed above, I appreciate what Rosalyn Kelly was going for.
  • The Worldbuilding: A nation ruled by women, wolves walking on two legs, cats speaking, these elements make for only a small part of what Melokai has to offer. I was interested in these different cultures and enjoyed learning more about them. The matriarchal society, in particular, was quite interesting to learn about, what with placing men in the position of slaves and worse.
  • The Cover: It’s the kind of cover that draws you in and awakens your curiosity. Whether the book delivered on the image’s promise or not, I can’t deny its a strong image, this one.
  • Adaptive People: People adapt according to their habitat. I don’t recall any explanation on how that worked, but it’s a very interesting idea.

The Verdict

I had a hard time finishing this book. Despite my initial enthusiasm, this was not the sort of grimdark novel I enjoy. Too much felt pointless to me. I enjoy grimdark not for the cruel and vile actions that this subgenre often employs, but for the way characters are shaped by and overcome all manner of hardships (if only to fail miserably at the end). Melokai didn’t offer any characters I found compelling; I appreciate the work author Rosalyn Kelly has put into it but I got very little enjoyment in my time with this particular novel.

Many others did, though! I encourage you to read through several of the four- and five-star reviews on Melokai’s Goodreads page to receive perspectives different from my own. Perhaps what they enjoyed will resonate with you more than my own views. And of course, the best way to make up your own mind is to read it yourself!

 

 

Sunday ComiX: Bone, Volume 01–Out from Bonetown

For as long as I’ve read superhero comic books, I have less experience with non-Marvel/DC titles than I’d like. I recently listened to the excellent “The View from the Cheap Seats” audiobook, written and performed by Neil Gaiman, who is one of the most talented writers I’ve read, dead or alive. He is also a constant source of inspiration, and this non-fiction novel has inspired me to read comic books a lot more broadly. I thought to start off with Eisner award-winning comics and I what’s a better start than…Bone, a series that took the 90s by storm!

A bit of backstory on Bone. It came out between 1991 and 2004. The complete run is 55 issues, and, as you’ve probably reasoned by now, these issues were released irregularly over the 13-year period. Bone was both drawn and written by one man, Jeff Smith. The art is reminiscent of a Looney Tunes cartoon in the very best of ways.

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The first volume presents us to our main cast of characters. First among our heroes if Fone Bone, a kind-hearted inhabitant of Bone Town who has the ill luck of being cousins with the most conniving man in town, Phoney Bone, a millionaire who’s been kicked out of town for the umpteenth time due to his constant scheming. This time, Phoney was kicked from Bone Town due to a scheme involving a statue of himself, a 50 ft. tall balloon, and bad prunes. To make up for Phoney Bone’s generally negative attitude, we’ve Smiley Bone, a tall, cigar-smoking empty-headed bone with a blissful smile permanently stuck on his face.

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Those are our Bones. But…there’s more! Take the dragon below. He too is a smoker, in fact. He also seems either very bored most of the time, or generally droopy. He’s introduced pretty early on in the first volume but his reasons for protecting Fone Bone don’t come into play until much later.

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All you need know is, the dragon is not to be trifled with.

One thing every colourful fairy-tale-leaning-towards-dark-fantasy comic book needs is a love interest! Enter Thorn.

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Now, I may have called her a love interest but she is so much more than that. Thorn is the first human we come upon, a gentle teenage girl living with her kindly old grandmother in the woods.

Did I say kindly? I meant to describe her as a cow-racing badass gramma, who fought the rats back in the BIG war! The name’s Gran’ma Ben, better not forget it, or she’ll make you regret it! The rats, naturally, are our bad guy goons; fluffy but monstrous, just as good children’s villains should be.

And this is the perfect graphic novel for a kid — it will never talk down to anyone, nor will it underestimate children’s intelligence. You’ll gain a lot from reading it regardless of age. This first volume serves as a nice introduction to the colourful world of Bone, some very entertaining characters and a mystery that gets a lot darker in the subsequent two volumes. (I just finished the third volume recently; expect my Bone vol. 3 post to be a lot more specific, with a number of panels and thoughts on specific issues.)

P.S. This once again proves that Neil Gaiman has spectacular taste in literature.

Next up, in Bone Vol. 02: The Cow Race! In it, a grandma races cows, a Phoney Bone is phoney, and a Smiley Bone is the most charming fake cow you’ll ever meet. Also, a honey boy comes between Fone Bone and Thorn! Oh, the horror.

Some Random Articles I read in June!

I read loads of articles on the Internet. Some are good, some are bad but those below are either the best, or the most useful, or the most random I could be bothered to write a line or two about!

RockPaperShotgun explains it all: Getting Warframes in Warframe, a Guide to end all Guides!

I’ve been dabbling in Warframe again lately. What a game! It’s basically a PvE where you collect character classes, called Warframes, which have abilities, and you shoot things while traveling our very own Solar System! All day, every day, it’s one hell of a good time whenever you’re looking for some fun but not terribly demanding game to play! Put on a podcast, a tv show, or audiobook and a good time is to be had; or alternatively, play with a friend, like I sometimes do. We’re the worst but the game makes us just a tiny bit better.

Sam Sykes announced a new book trilogy, which he dubbed a ‘love letter to Final Fantasy,’ and though I’ve never read anything by him, this sounds right up my alley!

I’m excited about Dying Light 2. Chris Avallone is in charge of its narrative design, of course I’m excited about it! Anyway, RPS wrote up some impressions from E3. Sound promises, everyone. Sound promises indeed.

Blogger Mitriel Faywood wrote an interesting post about literary fiction, aptly titled, “On Defining Literary Fiction”. I quite enjoyed reading through her reasoning and was happy to follow another lovely book blog. I ought to read more of her posts!

I was surprised to find that RPS’s 50 best strategy games list was topped off by none other than procedurally generated grid-em-up, Into the Breach. I heard it was good but I never thought it would be this good; now I have to go ahead and purchase it! Woe is me.

As you can tell, I read a lot of RockPaperShotgun.

I actually read many more interesting articles, some of which have to do with the public discourse around Article 13 of the European Union. It’s a complex topic with a lot possibly (but not 100% certainly) at stake. I’m interested to see how this change in author and publishing right will affect content creators such as myself, if it will at all, as well as how it’ll generally play out. I did try to spread the word against it, to very little effect.  Oh well.

Anyway, this is a bit of non-content on randomness. I can be random sometimes, right?