Book Review: Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik

Book Review: Spinning Silver: A Novel, Naomi Novik

Spinning Silver: A Novel by Naomi Novik

Fantasy: Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik

I didn’t particularly like Prince Casimir. He’d come to stay at my father’s house once, and I’d been beneath his notice, so he hadn’t been on his best behavior….He was nearly my father’s age, and a man who lived almost entirely on the surface. But he wasn’t a fool, or cruel. And more to the point, I was reasonably certain he wasn’t going to try and devour my soul. My expectations for a husband had lowered.


Spinning Silver is a sweeping reinvention of the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale. Miryam is the daughter of a moneylender, one who is too nice to be successful. Frustrated at her family’s poverty and the disrespect her Jewish family faces, she takes over the debt collection business and changes their fortunes. However, she unwisely boasts of her ability to turn silver into gold while in the forest, within the hearing of the king of the Staryk. This fairy creature has silver but needs gold, and he gives her a bag of silver coins for her to turn into gold for him.


Miryam realizes that she has no choice but to obey. She takes the silver to a jeweler in the city, who melts it into a ring for the duke. The ring is sold and the purchase is made with gold coins. But, of course, the transaction was never going to be a one off, and more silver follows.


Irina is the daughter of the duke, of marriageable age but not particularly attractive or notable. However, the silver is magical, and the duke realizes that with the unmarried tsar visiting soon, magical jewelry on his daughter might attract the tsar’s eye. He purchases everything that Miryam can have made, and bargains are set that push two unwilling women into unwelcome marriages.


For the Staryk king has decided that a mortal with the gift of turning silver into gold would make a fine queen. And the tsar is not himself, but is possessed by a demon who wants nothing more than to take the life of one who can wear magical jewelry. Unless these two women can find a way to work together, their lives and the lives of everyone in two kingdoms may be forfeit.


Naomi Novik is a prizewinning author with both a John Campbell and a Nebula award to her credit. In her two latest books, 2016’s Uprooted (Nebula winner) and 2018’s Spinning Silver, she has begun a series of books taking Polish fairy tales and reimagining them. In this case, she has indeed taken the silver of a classic fairy tale and spun it into the gold of a marvelous fantasy novel.


Spinning Silver shifts back and forth between the perspectives of Miryam, Irina, Miryam’s servant Wanda, Wanda’s brother Stepon, and Tsar Mirnatius. It also shifts back and forth in time occasionally, retelling the same events from different perspectives. This can be confusing sometimes, but Novik usually does a good job distinguishing the voices and perspectives to help the reader stay with her. In a book that builds two worlds so fully, the human world where Miryam and Irina live and the Staryk world, the occasional confusion during a perspective change is a small challenge for the reader.


Novik does not shy away from legitimate social issues within her worlds. The Staryk world is very hierarchical. It is an icy world, gripped in winter. To protect his world from the demon living in the tsar, the Staryk king is quite willing to freeze the human world and kill all of the people living in it. That iciness is not only toward humans. Staryk are not given names until they are valued by someone willing to name them. It may be the most valuable gift a Staryk peasant can receive.


Miryam’s family are Jews. Because of this, they are resented and not trusted by the general population. Miryam’s grandfather, also a moneylender, could greatly advance his standing in the city if he converted. He refused. Miryam’s parents are despised in their small town, even though her father’s soft heart means he allows people to go for years without repaying their debts. To her credit, Novik does not assume any fantasy can fix anti-Semitism. Miryam fights to conquer the Staryk king. There is no magical cure for blind hatred.


Spinning Silver is pure gold. My only suggestion: make sure you read it someplace warm. The descriptions of northern European winter and the icy Staryk kingdom made me want to hunker under blankets the entire time. Hot chocolate, warm fires, thick blankets, and time to savor a magical fantasy.

Spinning Silver: A Novel by Naomi Novik

Book Review: Spinning Silver: A Novel, Naomi Novik

Book Review: Seafire, Natalie C. Parker

Book Review: Seafire, Natalie C. Parker


Young Adult Fiction: Seafire, Natalie C. Parker

Seafire is the young adult adventure I want my granddaughters to read when they get older. Natalie C. Parker has put together a tale of rebellion on the high seas that features as tough a heroine as you may ever meet in Caledonia Styx, captain of the Seafire, a ship with an all female crew. This first book of a planned YA trilogy starts with fire and fury and keeps building to a conclusion that would do Hollywood proud.


Caledonia Styx is only fourteen when she and her best friend, Pisces, go on a supply run to a small island. While there, Caledonia is attacked by a “Bullet,” a sailor/soldier of the despot Aric Athair. She is stabbed and grievously wounded. Their ship, captained by Caledonia’s mother, is taken and the entire crew killed.


Caledonia and Pisces manage to salvage the remnants of the ship and escape. They rebuild her and rename her the Mors Navis, and recruit a crew of all girls and women to fight Aric Athair. Several years later, their fights are inflicting minimal damage on the despot’s fleet. Enough to get his attention and ignite his wrath, but not nearly enough to do any real damage. Then, a battle goes a bit sideways. Pisces is captured, but as the Mors Navis turns to flee, a tow rope goes taut. Pisces is on the other end of it, free, but she is not alone. A young man has helped her escape, but insists on fleeing with her. And suddenly Caledonia must face some difficult choices. Can she trust a male, a bullet, after the betrayal that cost her family? Is the information he gives accurate and actionable? Dare she put her crew and her ship into the danger that acting on his information would mean?


Seafire is a fun and exciting adventure on the high seas. The world Parker builds is a future dystopian world where some technologies have survived, some have advanced, and others have been lost. Thus the ships are a mixture of old and speculative technologies that lets Parker’s characters frolic in some wild seas. In some ways this is an old story, but with new flourishes. At one point Caledonia is asked whether she is a pirate queen. She laughs and replies, No. She’s a rebel. She and her band of merry women are Robin Hoods on the waves, robbing from the rich (though they are poor enough themselves they don’t give much away) and seeking to frustrate the rule of cruel Aric and break his tyrannical grip. Having a bunch of girls and young women who can steer the ship and swing the swords just adds to the fun.


The girls and women of the Seafire are wonderfully described. Parker does not pretend that the average girl will have a physical advantage over the average boy, but she does not assume that those differences would matter much if circumstances can be tilted unexpectedly. The crew of the Seafire is well-conditioned, strong, and smart. They can hold their own in a fight, but they also use their intelligence and their skill and their teamwork to change the circumstances to their favor. They don’t mind being underestimated. In fact, they will use that. So you think you have us surrounded? We have hidden part of our crew, and you are the ones surrounded! You think you have disarmed me? You did not realize this object I hold is a remote detonator, and your problems have only just begun. These women will fight for their sisters. They will die for their sisters. But they will take a lot of others down with them before they die, and their love for each other will take them through every obstacle that they face.


Parker has created a terrific space for her characters to work with, and she has created some terrific characters to work in that space. I am looking forward to the sequels coming to this first book, and I am looking forward to my preschool granddaughters getting a few years older so they can appreciate the kickass women who crew the Seafire. My oldest granddaughter loves “feisty” heroines (“feisty” is her word). They don’t come any feistier than Caledonia Styx.

Also see: Booklist: Fun Summer Reads


Book Review: Seafire, Natalie C. Parker

Book Review: Zeroboxer, Fonda Lee

Book Review: Zeroboxer, Fonda Lee

Carr “The Raptor” Luka is a young and rising star in the violent sport of “zeroboxing,” a zero gravity form of cage fighting popular on Earth, Luna, and Mars. Luka is everything a marketer could want. Blessed with good looks, character, personality, a rags-to-riches life story, incredible talent and a drive to succeed and put in the work to do it, the league sees in him their opportunity to grow the sport. Enter Risha, a Mars-born “brandhelm” charged with making Luka the face of zeroboxing. Herself young and ambitious, she is successful in promoting Luka. More than that, the two fall in love.


Fonda Lee’s debut novel, Zeroboxer, chronicles the rise of the biggest sports star Earth has had in a long time, fighter possibly good enough to go up against the fearsome Martians, those genetically enhanced descendants of humans who were bigger, stronger, and faster than their counterparts from the third planet.


But during his rise, Luka becomes aware of a criminal conspiracy, one that puts him in possession of a secret that could destroy him and his family. If he keeps that secret, it could destroy everything and everyone he loves. But if he reveals the secret, it almost certainly would do the same thing.


Sometimes in sports you discover that you cannot win. You can always, though, refuse to quit. In that way, sports becomes a compelling metaphor for life.


Fonda Lee creates amazing characters. Luka and Risha feel like real people. Their motivations and their actions make sense. Luka loves his mother, loves his coach, and loves Risha. Risha also loves Luka. Luka fears losing, whether that is in the ring or in his life. Sometimes that fear clouds his judgment. Even when his decisions are questionable, though, his core remains firm.


Some of Lee’s best writing comes in her fight scenes. I will confess to not being a big fan of sports like boxing, wrestling, martial arts, UFC, etc. Lee’s descriptions, though, of a sport that does not actually exist, made it sound like she was in the cage with the fighters. Sweat, blood, pain, the feelings of victory and defeat. If zeroboxing ever becomes a real sport, I suspect that its chroniclers will use this novel as a reference tool.


I am not sure why this book is classified as YA. I suppose it is because the protagonist is a teen. The themes of the book are mature, though, and Lee certainly doesn’t pull any punches in her descriptions of violence, sex, or other adult themes. I wouldn’t say it is inappropriate for teens, but I wonder whether some audiences might pass on it thinking it is for kids. It is actually a great book that certainly appealed to this middle-aged reader.


Fonda Lee is a gifted writer who is just beginning to make her mark. Zeroboxer, like her more recent book Jade City, features gifted writing and memorable characters. I look forward to whatever she chooses to write next.

Book Review: Zeroboxer, Fonda Lee

Book Review: Akata Witch, Nnedi Okorafor

Book Review: Akata WitchNnedi Okorafor

Akata Witch, Nnedi Okorafor

Fantasy: Akata WitchNnedi Okorafor


“My name is Sunny Nwazue and I confuse people.”


That may be one of the best lines I’ll ever read introducing a character. Sunny is many things. An American girl growing up in Nigeria, the daughter of two Igbo parents. An albino. And as she discovers early in the book, a Leopard Person–also known as a witch. Akata Witch is Sunny’s story, how she learned she had magical abilities, how she was embraced by a world she never knew existed, and how she found her place in that world with the help of some friends.


I am reminded of the Doctor Who episode “The Doctor’s Wife,” when the Doctor tries to explain that they have entered a place that is not in their universe but it is like a soap bubble on the edge of a larger bubble except it is nothing like that but if it helps you to think of it like that then it is exactly like that.


My fear in writing my introduction is that it may sound like Akata Witch is similar to another series of books about a young magic worker who did not know about his abilities and was embraced by a world he never knew about and how he found his place in that world with the help of some friends. I suppose if HP were an albino American-Igbo girl who continued to attend school with ordinary students then it would be exactly like that…which is to say that it is extremely unfair to compare the two and I really don’t want to do that. Nnedi Okorafor has made some magic with Akata Witch, and it stands on its own quite well. She has won the Locus, Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards for her fiction, and the sequel to this novel won this year’s award for Best Young Adult Book which was presented at the Hugo ceremony.


Akata Witch could not have been written by someone unfamiliar with Nigeria. Whether the descriptions are of the feel of the air on skin, the sound of insects, the taste of the food, the smell of dust and smoke, Okorafor engages all of the reader’s senses in her book. Sunny’s albino skin is described by her school bullies as being the color of sour milk. The book simply delights on multiple levels.


Okorafor is one of the leading voices of Africanfuturism, a growing genre of stories that features African voices telling African stories set in the future. This genre is long overdue. Africa gave birth to us all, and now is giving birth to some exciting literature that demands attention. Okorafor has a voice that is both African and American, born in Cincinnati and teaching in Chicago, but spending a lot of time in Nigeria as well. The blend of cultures, mixed with her intelligence and experience and scholarship, helps her create unique books which put extraordinary characters into extravagantly described worlds.


Akata Witch features a young woman finding herself. African and American, “black” and albino, magical but living in an ordinary home and attending an ordinary school, Sunny Nwazue is a special protagonist. I loved this book, and I am excited to read the sequel.


Akata Witch, Nnedi Okorafor

Book Review: Akata WitchNnedi Okorafor

Book Review: Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi

Book Review: Children of Blood and BoneTomi Adeyemi


Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi

Fantasy: Children of Blood and BoneTomi Adeyemi

Zelie’s mother was killed because she had magic. Many people were killed during The Raid, when magic disappeared from the world and those who once had used it were targeted by the king. Since that fateful night all those years ago, the magic was gone. Zelie had the white hair that indicated magical potential, but no magic could be found in the world. Then, a princess touches her with a mysterious scroll, and Zelie begins to find the power in herself that her mother once employed. The magic may be gone from Zelie’s world, but that is only because Tomi Adeyemi has put it into her amazing novel Children of Blood and Bone and has thus brought it into ours.


It’s easy sometimes to reduce stories to tropes. Hero’s journey? Check. Love story? Check. Misunderstood princess? Check. Young and untrained people discovering how to use magic? Check. And, sure, fine, those familiar themes are present in this novel. What sets a novel apart, though, is when it makes familiar ground new and exciting and different.


Here again, the easy and cheap thing to do is grab the obvious differences: Africa, not Europe or America. But this book is not different only because it is set in a part of the world that is underrepresented in published fantasy literature. This book is different because it is really, really good. The world building is amazing. The characters are real and flawed and heroic and common and everything you want in a character. Some of the scenes take your breath away. There is magic in this book, and it is not from the spells or the mystical powers or the artifacts. The magic is in the writing and the creativity and the depth of the story. The book may hide on the YA shelves of your local library, but it is a very mature story that should appeal to all ages. I could not put it down.


Two of the three main characters are female, but this is not a “girl’s” book (or a “boy’s” book–if there are such things). This is a good book. Will girls and women be thrilled to see the heroics come from a “her”? I hope so, but boys (and men) will also love to see the strength of these characters. As a reader, I also loved watching the growth and change in the characters through the course of the book. None of the three main characters is perfect, all are flawed, and all of them are different by the end than they were in the beginning. And although the next novel is perfectly set up, I have no idea what direction the characters will take in the next part of the story. I just know I am very eager to find out.


Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi

Book Review: Children of Blood and BoneTomi Adeyemi