From the author of Uprooted (2015), the splendid Temeraire Napoleonic Wars–and-dragons series, etc., this reworked fairy tale’s opening sentence might well have read Once upon a time in Old Lithuania....
Expanding a recent short story based on “Rumpelstiltskin,” Novik weaves in other elements of Eastern European folklore along with some fine original flourishes. Miryem, the granddaughter of affluent Jewish moneylenders, takes over her incompetent father’s failing business affairs. Channeling anger and frustration into business acumen, she collects the debts that are owed, accepting goods or services as well as coin. In this and other ways, Miryem turns copper and silver into gold. Unfortunately, gold attracts the attention of the Staryk, coldhearted fairies who occasionally intrude into the human world, bringing with them forgetfulness and a breath of winter. One such gives Miryem fairy silver, ordering her to change it into gold. Fairy silver, Miryem finds, is so beautiful that it fetches huge sums in gold, especially when made into jewelry magnificent enough to intrigue the Duke. Miryem slowly grasps that she’s made a bargain with the Staryk: He will make her his queen if she succeeds in spinning a vast pile of silver into gold—and freeze her solid if she fails. She has no wish to marry him but also notices that the Staryk do not particularly value gold in itself—so why do they want such large quantities of it? In spare prose of great clarity Novik weaves in and out of multiple first-person narratives in sometimes-illuminating, sometimes-disconcerting or confusing ways, exploring human and alien social structures and ethnic prejudices, fathers and daughters, damaged relationships and hidden agendas, wringing unexpected consequences from seemingly simple choices.
A medieval fable of obscure moral import blossoms into a thoughtful, emotionally complex, absorbing drama that stands confidently on its own merits.