The whole book is plotted like an intricate puzzle jewel box, the kind you have to know the trick to open, with little pieces moving in seemingly random ways to make other little pieces able to move, and when it falls open in your hands you don't know how she did it. It is entirely original in its mythology, but drawn so expertly from all the folktales we know and don't know that every new revelation of magic feels inevitable and true.
Novik starts with a kernel from the story of Rumplestilskin, plants it deep into Russian tales like Vasilisa the Brave, and fertilizes it liberally with the history of Jews in Eastern Europe. The tree that grows from these roots has three heroines (shush! I know my metaphor is falling apart!)—three girls representing the narrow possibilities their society would allow them, girls made wise and cold by the necessity of their circumstances.
Miryam is the daughter of a moneylender who is too kind to be any good at it. Wanda is the daughter of a drunkard who beats her and wants to marry her off for whatever dowry he can get. Irina is the daughter of a duke, who doesn't beat her, but wants to marry her off for whatever dowry he can get, despite her disappointing lack of beauty.
I loved that this is a story about their choices. They are not given agency but they take it anyway, and their choice to stand up and exercise it transforms their world. I love the courage they each forge in different ways from their desperation, the various moments when they say "No!" because nothing could be worse than what they are saying no to. And the power they get from that realization.
I love that Miryam's power to transform silver into gold is economic: she's smart and knows how to value things and how to invest. It's a magic as potent as the magic of reading and figuring that she teaches Wanda. Knowledge is power; knowledge transforms. All kinds of transformations going on, in all the characters, in their perceptions, in the readers' perception of them and their perceptions of each other. The power of perception.
The themes in this book! I absolutely loved the way she started with a moneylender and blossomed off into an examination of promises and debt, honour and generosity, justice versus fairness. Value: who gives it? Where does a person get their value from? Power. Ooooh, all kinds of angles of looking at power: male power, female power, political power, magical power, the power of promises. Bonds, covenants, bargains. Fascinating! I've never found bookkeeping to be so emotionally resonant.
It was also a brilliant illumination of faith. Miryam is Jewish—I don't know if Naomi Novik is Jewish, but she certainly depicted that religion as if she understood it in her bones—and the concept of religion, of faith, the purpose of it, is lovingly represented by Judaism.
I had not known that I was strong enough to do any of those things until they were over and I had done them. I had to do the work first, not knowing.
... high magic: magic that came only when you made some larger version of yourself with words and promises, and then stepped inside and somehow grew to fill it.Somewhere I hope someone is writing a PhD thesis about this book, because there's just so much going on in it! But you don't need to analyze it: you just need to let Novik's writing carry you away into a magical, entirely real land, full of heart-stoppingly lovable characters.
Miryam, Wanda and Irene are each fierce and clever and brave on their own, but it is unutterably wonderful when they reach across what divides them and come together to help each other. In the words of a Goodread reviewer (whose name I can't tell you because it's written in Arabic, sorry!): "I love this book so much—the kind of love that is peculiar to inhabiting the perspective of young women with agency and the relationships they form when relying on each other." (Her whole review is wonderful and says everything I want to say, but it tells you a lot more of the plot than I'm willing to—I don't want you to have too many expectations going in!)
I'm a bit late reading this book, so you all probably know how wonderful it is already, but if you don't: stop everything, swipe off your TBR and read this book!
This has to be something with layers: lots of different layers of flavours and textures that highlight and complement each other, so when you taste it you taste each individual thing but also something greater than the sum of all the parts. I'm making myself hungry and I don't even know what food I'm thinking of! Is there a Russian version of lasagne? Or maybe Black Forest Cake, or some Russian variant thereof. Mmm, going to eat lunch now!