Another delightful dark fairy tale from the incomparable Ms. Novik.
This story is placed in a rather primitive time period where the main mode of transport is still by horses and the people are ruled by kings and queens. People live in cities and do those things that city people do, and people live in the country and raise crops to feed the city people. The story is told from the perspective of people from all sides.
Miryem is the daughter of a poor Jewish moneylender. Poor because her father is so bad at collecting. Lending is easy, he never says no to anyone but his heart isn’t in the collecting side. But when Miryem’s mother is on death’s door and the villagers laugh and scorn them, she takes matters into her own hands. And she discovers that she is a very, very good collector. As her father and mother fear, she develops a hard heart and hardens the hearts of the villagers against the family. Retaliation against Jews is a real fear. She is so good at her job, that she fatefully boasts that she can turn silver into gold. And someone heard…
The woods in the winter often have unwelcome visitors the Staryek who ride their white horses on the shining white road and pillage and rape as they will. A Staryek Lord hears Miryem’s boast and decides that she will do for him as she did for others. And she dare not refuse, not knowing what the cost might be. The first purse of silver coin given to her, she takes to a jeweler in the city who melts it down and makes a ring that he sells to the Duke for gold. The second purse of silver coins is enough to make a whole necklace which is, again, sold to the Duke for even more gold. The Duke has a daughter, of rather ordinary visage, but when she wears the necklace, all eyes are on her. So he demands the jeweler make her a crown the next time. And when the next purse of silver is given to Miryem, the result is a crown unlike any other. But payment is owed to Miryem and the Staryek have a very different code. In the Staryek world, there is no such thing as giving a gift; all such things must be compensated in like manner. So for the third box of silver, the Staryek Lord promises to make Miryem his wife, if she succeeds.
The Duke’s daughter, Irina, is promised to King Mirnatius whom she remembers as a rather nasty little boy given to murdering squirrels. Irina has a little magic in her blood but it isn’t enough until she wears the Staryek silver jewelry and then she discovers that she can step through reflective surfaces and enter the Staryek winter world. On her wedding night, she does just that and sits freezing in the snow on the other side of a mirror and watches her groom destroy their bedchamber in a violent temper but it isn’t really Mirnatius, it’s the demon that resides in his body. A demon that did enter into a contract with his mother to put him on the throne over his brother, the rightful heir. A demon that Mirnatius has had to placate his whole life. A demon that hungers for Irina. She can’t survive in the Staryek world so each morning she returns to her bedchamber baffling her new husband who is being pressured by the demon to present her as dinner. To survive, Irina must find a way to offer a better contract to the demon.
Also into the story comes a young innocent farmgirl, Wanda. Wanda’s father owes Miryem’s father quite a bit but the man hasn’t a coin to his name. Unwilling to allow an excuse which everyone in the village would then jump on, Miryem demands the services of his strong daughter to pay off his debt. Wanda is more than grateful to work in a nice house where she is warm and well-fed and treated with respect. The only thing she fears is paying off the debt which will return her to her father’s house. But she does return each night to cook and clean for her father and two brothers. When Miryem disappears into the Staryek world to be a queen, it is Wanda who takes over the collecting and caring for Miryem’s parents. But everything comes crashing down one night when Wanda’s father invites the local brewmaster to their house to offer Wanda as a trade for a steady supply of alcohol. Wanda surprises herself when she refuses but she didn’t reckon on the level of violence this provokes in her father and when it’s all over, Wanda and her brothers have to flee with the few possessions they have. When they finally find refuge, it becomes a focal point for all three women.
Meanwhile, Miryem has discovered that in the Staryek world she really does have the ability to transmute silver into gold and that her new husband requires her to do just that. But now that she understands their code, she bargains for the right to ask three questions each night in an attempt to better understand the new world she rules. What she discovers is that her actions are dooming her sunlit world.
The fate of both worlds is dependent on the actions and choices of all three women and their personal motivations and goals don’t always mesh.
This is more synopsis than I usually write but this story could not be easily summarized. And I have just skimmed the surface; there is so much more depth to this novel. The plotting for this story is just amazing and while the characters are not always sympathetic or as well-defined as one might wish, they are intensely interesting. This felt like a dense novel and yet I seemed to speed through it so quickly I was a little surprised when it was over. I continue to be delighted by Ms. Novik’s talents. ~~ Catherine Book
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