So yesterday was Ask Me About How Much Money I Spent On Books Day, and even so it’s only by chance I picked up this book. Previously all I’d known about Naomi Novik was the “Napoleonic War with, hnur hnur wait for it—DRAGONS!” series. And that just sounds boring. (The Napoleonic War contains: Sharpe. Sharpe does not do dragons. The End. OK, yes, I am being shallow.) But I also happen to really like twisted fairy tales or fairy tale retellings. This one–with considerable additions and considerable feminine emphasis–starts with Rumpelstiltskin, adds Russia, and then starts getting…good?
Plot: Miryem Adelstam is the daughter of a very bad moneylender. That is to say, he’s very good at lending money, but he’s REALLY bad at collecting it, and as a consequence, she and her family are starving and freezing, her mother is dying of the winter cough, and Miryem has just about had enough. So she takes over the family business–and starts to turn a profit. (Finally.) Along for the ride, working for Miryem to pay off her father’s drinking debts, is peasant girl Wanda–actually quite happy for the arrangement, as it gets her out of her abusive father’s house, an education, and a chance at earning a little money of her own. She’s the third major POV in the novel, but her storyline is subordinate to Miryem’s, so I’ll leave it at that.
So Miryem is quite good at her job, although her parents (you know, the ones who were happily and virtuously starving to death without money) are very distraught at the psychic toll it’s taking on her. They do have a shadow of a point, however, because Miryem’s boast of being able to turn silver into gold draws the attention of the Staryk (ice elves. Just roll with it) King. He gives her three allotments of silver for her to work her magic on, with the promise of death if she fails. Oh, and if she succeeds, there’s the threat that he’ll marry her.
Miryem is able to have the silver made into jewelry and sell it to the local Duke for ten times its value. She succeeds. The Staryk King is no happier than she is to have to follow through, but them’s the breaks when you are a supernatural creature bound by supernatural laws and cannot break your own word. So off he trots with Miryem in tow.
Meanwhile, the Duke is marrying his neglected disappointment of an eldest daughter, Irina–who has just acquired some really remarkable jewelry–off to the tsar. Irina makes two important discoveries very rapidly just before and after the wedding: first, that the fairy-silver necklace, crown, and ring allow her to pass into the fairy realms; second, that her new husband is possessed by a powerful fire demon who wants to eat her.
So we now have two heroines, one married to an ice elf, and the other to a fire demon, who would really like to become widows…except maybe not. After all, five days is hardly enough time to decide you really want to murder your husband, right? I mean…they both are kind of handsome. If you, like, catch them at the right angle and they’re not planning on eating your soul or holding you prisoner to turn silver into gold and trap the world in endless winter. I mean, y’know….abs.
But regardless of qualms, a trap is set…
I haven’t been reading much lately–I’d almost forgotten how absorbing a really good fantasy novel is. And this book is good. It’s well-written, in a deceptively simple style. It’s written in first-person POV, but the heroines’ voices are completely distinct, their stories absorbing. There is a little lurch or two near the middle of the book where a couple other minor POV characters are introduced, but that is speedily overcome.
Since I’m running out of time I’ll shorten this review to say: there are a couple of things I didn’t like. First, the emotional climax of the plot occurs before the action finale/setpiece does, and so cheapens the buildup to the latter. Instead of tension, there’s just a boring, annoying wait for the characters to catch up to the plot and get to fighting already. (Oh, also, we barely get to see the fight. That’s bad.) Second: even though large chunks of plot do depend on fairy-tale logic (we found this hut here and so did everyone else), there are still a couple of spots wherein characters do things because the plot requires them to, rather than any real in-character reason.
Lastly…let me diverge before I come back to lastly. Above, I made a point of saying that there was feminine emphasis in this book. It’s only because “feminist” is often a bad word that I didn’t use that instead. First things first: this is not a propagandistic story in which men are bad and women good. It’s a story about clever and resilient women who work to get what they want from or for, with or without the aid of, men. They are strong female characters who never once raise their hands to strike another. That said, I think the author overdid it on Irina. Too much of the plot hinges on her doing things that she has no reason to, shouldn’t be able to, or shouldn’t even *want* to.
Now, I like Irina’s arc. I can buy that she could scheme as well as her father; I can buy that she would put a fire demon in its place. I can also see her, as she calmly planned to, working with her father and allies to take over the throne, Catherine the Great-style. Her actions throughout her POV chapters are driven by necessity and pragmatism; I don’t see her being selfless enough to *want* to help the Staryk further, or any reason why she should have done so. But hey, if they make a movie of this, people will love Irina–she’s a Badass Good Girl. I would have preferred if she was just Badass, and left the good to Miryem and Wanda.
Last-last thing: the timeline was just a hair too compressed. (Five or so days for the second act). When you’ve got a good thing going, more helps.
Other stuff I liked: Miryem out-lawyering the King when ordered to change every piece of silver in three enormous storerooms….moves all the silver out of the largest and dumps it in a river. The tsar guy’s POV was also pretty funny, too. As is Miryem’s observation that elves don’t usually have much use for accountants…
Oh, and it’s apparently very cold in Russia. Especially fantasy versions of it.
Rated: I was up til midnight last night reading this. Good book!
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