Completed 10/13/2021, Reviewed 10/13/2021
Like its predecessor Uprooted, this book is a retelling of a fairy tale, this one more well-known, infused with Slavic myth and culture. It is loosely based on Rumpelstiltskin. It features three women of different classes whose paths become intertwined when the faerie king, known as the Staryk (which I think would mean “old one” in Polish) king, prevents winter from receding. It is very similar to Uprooted in storytelling style, pacing, and prose. I really enjoyed the book, which won the Mythopoeic Award and was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and other awards in 2018 and 2019.
The book begins with Miryem, a young Jewish woman whose father is a moneylender. As she comes of age, she becomes angry at how he is too kind to force his customers to repay their loans, leaving the family in a near impoverished state. So she becomes adept at collecting for him. In addition, she makes wise investment choices and her family soon rises back to a more middle-class lifestyle. One of her customers, an abusive drunk, won’t repay his loan, so she bargains with him to have his daughter work as a servant for her family for pay. Wanda finds the arrangement more than satisfactory as she gets to escape from the physical and emotional abuse the father wields. Word gets around that Miryem “turns silver into gold” and soon the Staryk king comes demanding she change his silver to gold. After three times, he steals her away against her will to his kingdom as his queen. In this land of Fae, her metaphorical ability becomes real magic.
The third woman, Irina, is the unattractive daughter of a duke. Miryem “changes” the Staryk king’s silver in fabulous jewelry that the duke pays a premium for. He uses it to enhance his daughter’s looks and dowry and he matches her with the tsar himself. Little do they know that the tsar is hiding some evil magic of his own. Irina and Miryem, in their new roles as tsarina and Staryk queen, try to use the magic around them to try to halt the spread of winter into spring and summer, a fate which seems tied up with the Staryk king.
The plot is pretty complicated. Novik juggles a lot of plots here, but she tells the story deftly, with good pacing and form. The story is told from the three women’s perspectives in first person. At first it was a little confusing, but I was able to follow along easily as the book progressed. I hit a few snags as three more characters became narrators in first person, but that eased as well.
The characterization is remarkable. Even though there wasn’t much difference between the speaking style of the narrators, it was easy to tell who was who by what they were telling. I liked all three characters, having clear pictures of them in my head, and empathizing with the plight of each one. The gist of all three is that their lives are out of control because of the dominant men in their lives. However, each one finds a way to overcome their plights by chance, trickery, and intelligence. These are three strong, determined women in a time of subservience to men. It’s empowering and exciting.
The men in the book are slimy or just plain evil, but not without redemption. They were just as three dimensional as the women. One exception was Wanda’s father who remains an abusive alcoholic. Another was Miryem’s father is too kind for his own good.
I give the book four stars out of five. My only complaint was that the prose had a cold quality to it. And I don’t think it was because of all the snow in the story. The book was well written, but the prose was spare, as in not lush. But it was fast-paced and very readable, particularly through the second half of the book. It’s an enjoyable read and makes me interested in her next venture, a new series not in the fairy tale vein.