Saturday, February 23, 2019

Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik

Spinning Silver astonished me. It astonished me more with every page I turned, and the ending floored me—if I hadn't been sitting down I would have collapsed. It was just so utterly perfect.

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!

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

What caught my eye at the bookstore today

I went into the bookstore for board books for a baby shower gift (my go-to baby gifts, in case you were wondering: Sandra Boynton, Very Hungry Caterpillar, and Each Peach Pear Plum by the Ahlbergs). Of course I had to wander past the display tables in the YA and kids' section. 

Here are a few books I hadn't heard of that looked interesting enough for me to keep my eyes open for library versions:

Fox magic in space. Sign me up now!

Inhabitants of paintings come to life: sounds cool! Also the cover is shiny.

I'm a sucker for kids-kicked-out-of-the-academy-are-the-only-ones-who-can-save-it stories. Might be my early Han Solo crush or something.

 I didn't even read the synopsis. The cover is so pretty! (I think it's the second book of a series?)(Something to do with skyscrapers, I'm guessing!)

Magic, Versailles and the French Revolution. Yes, please.

And the one book I did buy, because it's Kenneth Oppel:

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Tess of the Road wins Cybil award!

I'm so happy, and so proud of Rachel Hartman (she's not only Canadian—she lives right here in Vancouver!). Tess is such a deserving book. Here's my review of it, in case you need more convincing to try it out. Books like this are why I read and blog about YA literature.

I've been on an unintentional blog hiatus for the last several months. Life has been taking up too much brain space for me to feel like writing, particularly something as self-indulgent as a blog about books I like. But the announcement of the Cybils' winners seemed like a good reason to climb back onto the blogging wagon. There are worthy books out there, and if I can get even one more person to hear about a book they'll love, then maybe that's a tiny bit of good I'm doing the world.

I did want to highlight the other books on the YA Spec Fiction shortlist, because they were all fabulous—and so diverse—and it's too bad only one can win!

Dread Nation I reviewed here. It's gotten quite a lot of press, but it lives up to the hype, and I can't wait for the sequel. I'm really not a fan of zombies, but this was way too much fun to miss.

Mirage was gorgeous and entirely original, and held my attention through an audio book (which I normally can't sit through because they take so long!). It's got a space opera setting, but it feels like intimate fantasy, with a princess, her body-double, a hostage prince and a rebellion. Lovely, poetic but spare writing, believable characters, rich Moroccan-based mythology and imagery, a sweet, impossible romance but an even more compelling relationship between Amani and the princess she first hates, then pities, then comes to understand. Evocative and beautiful.

Summer of Salt: this one was quirky, magical and a little heart-wrenching, with heaps of weather-y island atmosphere and a fascinating cast of characters. Twin sisters from a long line of magical women, a famous, mysterious bird, a very odd murder investigation, lesbian romance and sisterly support. Funny and sweet with a core of wildness and the smell of salt in the breeze.

Not Even Bones is dark, gory, seriously twisted, and I can't believe I loved it as much as I did! A protagonist who dissects the dead bodies her mother brings home so the magical body parts can be sold on the black market—and who really enjoys her work—how could I possibly love this character? But Nita is so brilliantly crafted that I was on her side from the start. She's unapologetic, fierce, resourceful, thoughtful, ruthless and very self-aware. Then there's Kovit—you want complex villains? You want to know how to humanize a monster? You would want Heath Ledger to play this character, I'm just saying. I found this book utterly compelling and the twist at the end seriously messed me up: need sequel now!

Pitch Dark: to be honest, the plot didn't make a whole lot of sense, but I didn't care, it was so much fun! It takes the whole woken-unexpectedly-out-of-stasis-on-a-spaceship-to-find-monsters-chasing-everyone space horror trope and mashes it (quite literally: they crash into each other!) with space-archaeologists-with-political-agendas-racing-to-save-humanity-from-terrorists (because, you know, that's totally a trope). Two strong, likeable protagonists narrate a thrill ride of non-stop action with a side-order of social commentary. If you liked the Illuminae series, you'll love this.

This Mortal Coil has yet another insane premise: people can now rewrite their own DNA, and our survivalist heroine is a genius gene-hacker hiding from a "shadowy organization" that has kidnapped her father, the only man who can cure the plague decimating the world. There's post- (or rather mid-) apocalypse on-the-run-from-scary-people-while-trying-to-save-the-world (with-a-really-hot-soldier-you-probably-shouldn't-trust) shenanigans and enough plot twists to make you question your own version of reality, as Cat certainly has to question hers.

So many good books! Such diversity of characters, writers, settings, atmospheres and themes. This is why YA literature is so awesome! Yay Cybils for celebrating all these good writers: go check out all the categories and find out what you have to read next.