Tag Archives: Russian folklore and magic

Review of KINDLE Ebook Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik #Brainfluffbookreview #SpinningSilverbookreview

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I’ve loved Novik’s writing for many years, being a fan of her fabulous Temeraire series – see my review of Victory of Eagles and I was also blown away by Uprooted – see my review here. So I was thrilled when Tammy of Books, Bones and Buffy mentioned Novik had released Spinning Silver.

Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders… but her father isn’t a very good one. Free to lend and reluctant to collect, he has loaned out most of his wife’s dowry and left the family on the edge of poverty–until Miryem steps in. Hardening her heart against her fellow villagers’ pleas, she sets out to collect what is owed–and finds herself more than up to the task. When her grandfather loans her a pouch of silver pennies, she brings it back full of gold.

I’ve heard this one described as a retelling of the old fairytale ‘Rumplestiltskin’, but it isn’t that straightforward. Novik has taken elements of that story – just a few – and woven them into another, more detailed backdrop. The setting is a version of 19th century Russia, complete with isolated villages surrounded by hundreds of miles of thick woodland, nobility who have the power of life and death over their subjects and a simmering resentment against the Jewish community. They are the ones who lend money to those who need it, the ones who often also make music, jewellery and can read and write within their close-knit communities, so make a convenient target when those in power don’t want to pay back their debts. Add in the danger of the ferocious cold of a Russian winter, when the dreaded Staryk are more easily able to cross into the human world. These icy fae have mercilessly predated upon the humans who wander too far into their forests, killing and stealing from them – and when their actions further impact upon the protagonists in the story, these shadowy, terrifying beings end up at the heart of this story.

It’s a complicated tale with three main protagonists, Miryem, the moneylender’s daughter, Wanda, who becomes her servant and is desperate to escape her drunken abusive father and Irena, the Duke’s eldest daughter by his first wife, whose bookish nature and plain looks have been a constant disappointment – until the Tsar comes to visit…

The story bounces between these three young women as their fates increasingly become intertwined. There is a fair amount of explanation – with pages when Novik is telling the story rather than having her characters speak, which I normally dislike. But I’m going to give her a pass on this one – firstly because it didn’t jar with me. This is, after all, a fairy story, which is always told from the outside in. Secondly, because though there is a fair amount of exposition, it was necessary in this complex plot and it didn’t stop Novik from immersing us in the thoughts and fears of her main protagonists. Thirdly, it was a delightfully long book with an unusually dense story, which I loved.

I’m aware this is a Marmite book – those aspects I’ve listed above as pluses have also exasperated some readers, preventing them from bonding with this book. Normally, I love a story to unfold from the inside out, but I simply think this time around it wouldn’t have worked so effectively. All I would say is – give it a go and discover for yourself if this one is for you. If you enjoy it, you’ll thank me. This is one that has had me continuing to ponder it since I’ve read it – always a sign that a book has properly got under my skin and it’s recommended for fantasy fans who like detailed worlds with plenty of unexpected twists thrown in.
9/10

 

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Review of Rosa and the Veil of Gold by Kim Wilkins

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Being the shallow sort who tends to pick up books because of their covers and nifty titles, I would have given this book a pass if it hadn’t been for Himself singling it out – and I’m very glad he did.

Beyond this world, behind the veil of history, lies the Kingdom of the Rus, the land where all the magic fled…rosa

Rose Kovalenka is wild and beautiful and broken: when she returned to Russia, her homeland, she left behind her lover Daniel, and part of herself. She is trying to rebuild her life when she finds a golden bear, hidden in a bathhouse wall, and her inherited Second Sight recognises the sudden lash of power as something otherworldly, something dangerous. Released from the protection of the bathhouse, the golden bear starts to recall the magic that once raged through the land of the Rus.

That’s as much of the blurb as I’m giving you, on the grounds that the rest of it tells you too much of the initial action. Have to say that I picked it up without too much enthusiasm, but with the grandchildren staying, my planned read – 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson – was proving just a tad too challenging for my exhausted brain. This looked a lot less daunting – which goes to show just how much of a wolf can prowl behind a girly sort of cover. It only took a page to draw me right into the writing, when it was apparent that I was in the hands of an experienced, accomplished writer at the height of her powers.

By rights I should have been rolling my eyes and swearing under my breath as breathtakingly beautiful Rosa stalked across the pages, enigmatic and flighty. The sort of heroine I normally loathe. But this time around, I found myself sympathetic to her difficult, contrary nature and drive to take mad risks. As for her lover – the fact that he is the timid, frightened one in the relationship ticked all my boxes. I get sooo sick of lantern-jawed alphas busy flexing their status and muscles – and when he is accompanied by the practical, cool-headed Em who never panics in an emergency, his terror is highlighted.  But this isn’t some simple love story. In fact, I’m delighted to report that while the love interest provides some of the initial impetus that gets the story going, this layered, complex novel is far more about the pursuit of what matters – and how one ambitious woman’s drive for power and riches drove magic from Rus and caused it to become a whole lot wilder and more dangerous.

It is refreshing to read excellent quality fantasy based in a culture other than my own – and Wilkins does a superb job of braiding a number of half-familiar old Russian mythological creatures into a terrifying land riddled with dreadful risks for mortal travellers. The most poignant were those fleeing Stalin’s purges, who tried to shelter beyond the veil with disastrous results. As Daniel and Em struggle to survive, while looking for a way out, Rosa is trying to find a way in. Wilkins handled the pace and tension such that I was reading into the small hours, despite my tiredness, despite being woken at unearthly o’clock by my small grandson.

Any niggles? Have to say that having one of the main protagonists address me, the reader, directly did jar and I would have preferred it if that passage had been turned into one of his stories for his young daughter. Or even a late-night musing. But it isn’t a deal-breaker – the overall richness and drama of the narrative, the complex and interesting characterisation and occasional bursts of brutal violence and action were far too well written for me to want to put this book down until I’d reached the ending. Which was unexpected, but very satisfying. I will be looking out for more from this author – she also writes as Kimberley Freeman. And if you haven’t yet encountered any of her work, and enjoy well written fantasy, then track down the uninspiringly titled Rosa and the Veil of Gold – it’s a lot better than it sounds.
9/10