Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik – reReview

spinningsilver_review_fangirlblog_featuredSince I was so disappointed with Uprooted, I wondered if Spinning Silver was going to hold up to a re-read. To my surprise, it did. This time, I figured out exactly what in it appeals to me: it’s the romance. No, no, wait, come back, I didn’t mean it that way, really, honest! I like action, I like fight scenes! I do! Honest! Come baaaaack….!

You see, it’s a simple theme: Beauty tames Beast. Miryem, after a rough start with the hero, establishes herself as his equal, tempers his disdain, and wins his respect and full affection. But: she doesn’t do in the usual way–by virtue, patience, and passive strength of will. She does it by taking action and forcing the belligerent male to acknowledge her worth. She’s a competent, active heroine and she gets a heroine’s role—saving the day—and a heroine’s reward.

This said, my initial complaints remain and are even intensified. Writing a fairy tale is good. Writing a fantasy political thriller is good. Writing a romance is good. Tying them together is cool. Having the ability to weave them seamlessly and effortlessly into a story that fits, flows, portrays, entertains, and enlightens? Is just tantalizingly beyond Novik’s reach.

There is—not at all in the whole!—but at just enough points to prevent the book from becoming truly excellent: Insufficient character motivations and a poorly paced climax with insufficient action (but what there was, was well-written and exciting, I will be fair), were already pointed out in my previous review. Adding to this is: inconsistency and oversimplification of characters where more complexity would have helped.

Writing the Staryk king inconsistently weakens the romance (cough), and it weakens the narrative. A clever heroine needs a strong hero–and the Staryk is not…until suddenly he is. This inconsistency is a problem. At a climactic turning point, it is revealed that the Staryk King is not a petulant bully bent on destroying humanity in eternal winter. Instead, he is shown to be noble, valorous, dedicated to his people–willing to sacrifice his life’s blood through slow torture to protect them. This guy is a hero (who happens to be on the opposite side, which is really one of the best kinds of heroes: you get more emotional torque, more conflict, more doubt and heartache, and a more complex plot).

Thing is: there was no hint of this guy beforehand.

And this weakens the narrative in several ways.

It makes Miryem’s change of heart less immediately believable. Certainly, her main concern is for the Staryk people, especially the three she has personally befriended, but failing to make a connection, even a grudging or tenuous one, with the guy she must spare no physical, mental, or emotional efforts to rescue and restore to health, (like my sentence structure? The grading rubric didn’t) is a failure on the author’s part.

Then, as noted above–it could have added a great deal of emotional torque, complexity, all that good stuff, etc, to the story. Betraying a bad man you were forced to marry is much easier than betraying one you respect. It’s almost always more interesting to have more conflict rather than less, and it’s always better to have more anguish. (OK, my computer crashed three separate times while I was writing this last paragraph. I’ll take that as a sign to wrap up.)

And finally, Miryem’s position is weakened when the Staryk is suddenly elevated. When he starts talking about resisting eternal torment–and means it–when he refuses to escape without the Lady to whom he has pledged–and means it–and when he talks about his duty to the lives of his people, Miryem has no acceptable rebuttals to give. She’s reduced to responding as petulantly as he had to her, earlier. It’s annoying when it could be epic.

To wrap up: I think “epic” is the best descriptor an author should aim for, and the highest praise. Whatever level you are on, aim higher. Shoot for a broader scope. Deeper worldbuilding. More heart-wrenching romance. More dangerous combat and dazzling action. More incisive and intelligent points of view. And better vocabulary. I still quite like this book and will probably read it over again many times–but I’m also planning to learn from its failures.

Rated: all things told, Granny Weatherwax’s hut is probably cooler than the unnamed sorceress’s….

Review: Uprooted – Naomi Novik

61kt2usfrql._sy346_First, I’m not sure if I’m being entirely fair, here. I think that this book is an example of an author telling a story instead of telling the story. Telling the story: definitive. An impartial and more or less complete view of what is going on. Multiple perspectives can be used to complete the view, or reveal things slowly to the audience. Plot developments come because of character actions; having clever, active characters makes for suspense and speed. Sympathy for them is built up by watching them act, struggle to influence events, fail or succeed, and try again. Telling a story: narrowed or skewed focus with a definite aim in mind. Think of the difference between [generic war movie] and [war movie from the point of view of a soldier who gets PTSD, with the intention of proving war is hell]; needless to say, neither is inferior or superior. In the latter, tension and suspense come more from what happens to the characters than what they do; we sympathize with their reactions to events.

Novik had a particular aim in mind when she was writing this story, and wasn’t able to make it quite flow–so there are points at which she has to clumsily muscle the narrative onto the track she wants it to go on, rather than letting it follow its own logical direction. Lest I be rightly or wrongly accused of reading the story with an agenda of my own, let me add that: a story that veers off its own logical direction is objectively either 1) a misunderstanding by the reader, or 2) authorial bias. Novik ran out of plot about three quarters of the way through the book. Then, since she didn’t have a good way of connecting the actual plot to the climax she had in mind, she….skipped straight there and pretended they were still connected.

OK, what is the plot? It starts out very promisingly, with a galumphing heroine (Agnieszka) and a haunting villain: the Wood, a completely malevolent, hideously dangerous magical forest…which is expanding its borders. Our…”hero”…is The Dragon, a wizard with his very own tower who protects Agnes’ village, at the price of one fair maiden every ten years. For housekeeping (no, really.) JUUUUUST for housekeeping.

Everyone has long believed that the beautiful, talented Kasia will be chosen. Instead…Agnes. Agnes has absolutely no special gifts or talents, except for magic. The Dragon must, perforce, apprentice and teach her. The Dragon does not inform her of this, and Agnes is slightly too dense and intimidated to realize it for a while. This is a relatively amusing section, before Things Get Worse.

Things Get Worse (after a little preliminary warming up), when Kasia is taken into the Wood. Agnes, in defiance of all common sense, goes in to rescue her dearest friend–and gets her out. Mostly out. Mostly Kasia, that is. Because what is currently in control of Kasia’s body is The Wood, and no one has ever been cleansed of such a deep contamination. But Agnes, by dint of willful stupidity and enormous stubbornness, manages it. Kasia is freed.

And then Things Get Worse: the news gets out, and brings back with it the spoiled and headstrong Prince uh….(checks wiki) Marek. His mother, the Queen Hanna, was taken into the Wood twenty years previously, and he wants her back. He’s got thirty men and warhorses, a mage called The Falcon whose magic is inferior to The Dragon, and the threat of burning Kasia at the stake to blackmail Agnes into helping. At the expense of twenty-eight men and all the horses, they get the Queen out, all that’s left of her.

And then Things Get Worse. You see, the Wood isn’t just malevolent–it’s intelligent. And now it has a puppet in the capital–in the Royal family itself….But mainly, at this point, Things also Get more poorly-written. Characters are weak, actions are not taken; and explanations for the stall the action are unconvincing or just not present. Why did the King or crown prince not have a very simple If/Then plan for if Prince Marek returned alive? Why does no one have a plan? Why does the narrative stall for several chapters until all of the correct factors are in place for a (gasp, oh no, how could this have happened!) It Gets Worse?

There are three tropes I particularly dislike: cheap villains, lynch-pin villain, and fantasy books that are NOTHING but travelogues. The Abhorsen books are the most egregious examples I have ever in my entire life seen of the latter. Got a book about a necromantic threat to a kingdom? Spend twenty-eight chapters laboriously marching your heroes from point A to point B, and TWO FREAKING PAGES FOR THEM TO DEFEAT IT AT THE VERY END OF THE BOOK. I’m still annoyed about that series, and I only included it in this review in order to rant a bit. Actually, there’s none of that in this book at all. Ahem.

So, cheap villains are the people who exist to be odious to the hero. Not really a threat….just an annoyance. They are aristocrats who look down their noses at, and insist on protocol to the working-class hero who is trying to get things done; they are the schoolyard bully who blunders up on page four, pushes the hero over, laughs churlishly, and then wanders away again. They are the boorish male character who makes chauvinistic comments to the heroine…for no plot-relevant reason than to raise an emotional reaction in the audience and raise sympathy for the poor bullied, patronized, hero. They are lazy and cheap plot devices, and I don’t have patience for them. Raising sympathy for the hero can be done in a way that’s plot relevant. Just make the obstacles relevant to the plot, or to a plot.

Marek is a weak character and a cheap villain; his motivations are unconvincing. Is he: going into the Wood because he is a second son, and needs to shore up his reputation as a warrior prince? No. Is he going to retrieve his mother because the King seems about to remarry and this could jeopardize his position? (What position, he’s already the second son….?) But no. Is he going (or being sent, or being used as) to test the Wood before the crown commits to another push against it? No! Are there any strategic considerations present? Nope. It’s ’cause he’s a spoiled, headstrong idiot and he wants his Mommy back. No, seriously. He wants his Mommy back and that is it. He even (SPOILER) dies because he believes so strongly that Mommy is coming/has come back.

…So when it’s brought out that some of his other later actions are politically-motivated (he needs to do x so the council will vote for him)…it doesn’t convince. This is a person who has had in the past absolutely no political motivations, no long-term goals (besides Mommy), so why should there be any now?–and the audience is left with the nagging suspicion that he’s doing x because the author wants him to just give the heroes as much trouble as possible; he is a villain, after all.

And the lynch-pin villain? You know it: it’s when you win against the entire horde by killing the queen; or when Sauron’s tower and all his armies collapse like puppets when you throw the Ring into Mount Doom. It’s cheap, it’s a cheat, it’s unimaginitive and lazy. And yes indeed, it is used here.

It also gets worse than that: the Wood–the terrifying spectre of malevolence, cunning, evil, the personnification of nature as a force of chaos and reckless change, etc, etc….gets explained and redeemed. And while it’s always annoying to have something as mysterious and dreaded go completely unexplained….it’s almost always a letdown for the audience to find out everything about it. Hints and implications are so much better, and by golly this is a long review, isn’t it? (I’ve been adding to it more or less all day as I’ve had time between practice sets.)

Rated: I need to read more science fiction again. SF doesn’t have problems like this…

Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik – QuikReview

Spinning SilverSo 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!