I do believe this is the first time I’ve ever read House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones. It seems to me that I saw it for sale at a convention, realized it was the third Howl’s Moving Castle book, and bought it, but never read it. Because I have no memory of ever encountering these characters or situations before. Well, at least I have it.
Once again the story begins in a different land with a different protagonist. We’re off to Norland to meet Charmain Baker, a bookworm who is quite possibly worse than me. I mean, I don’t usually skive off on chores to read. And I know how to do those chores like laundry, cleaning, and how to cut up my vegetables before cooking them. You might recall that Norland was briefly mentioned in Castle in the Air as the homeland of the elderly Princess Hilda, one of the far too many princesses featured in the previous book.
Charmain’s story gets an abrupt kickstart by her Aunt Sempronia who volunteers the girl to look after her great-uncle William’s house while the wizard is away. Having led an incredibly sheltered life courtesy her mother, Charmain has never really enountered magic before now and, as you can reason, a house of many ways is a rather magical building. And just as she’s beginning to adapt to staying in the house, one Peter Regis comes along to be our bumbling assistance for the novel.
There’s also a dog, Sophie Pendragon coming to visit her friend Hilda and help with a rather unspecified problem and as many shenanigans as any other book in this series. Like the other two books, especially Castle in the Air, I found that House of Many Ways was another exasperatingly slow start that gradually picked up speed until it was flying by the climax. I suppose it’s not a bad way to write, but it does make those first chapters something of a pain to get through each and every time.
It almost makes me wonder if the authors who write in this fashion have never heard the supposed wisdom of the first hundred pages needing to be the strongest in the book. It’s not a bad strategy, but really, the whole book should be strong. It shouldn’t fade off after a hundred pages, but it also shouldn’t take a hundred pages just to get interesting.
Overall, I found House of Many Ways to be an enjoyable addition to the world. Any issues I have with it tend to be consistent for the entire series, but it’s still a good book. Like the second book, it’s one of those where you remember that the author doesn’t present you with unnecessary information or characters, and all the answers are there if you stop and think about it.
Everyone knows by now how very excited I’ve been to read my next book, which is undoubtedly why I managed to burn through its four hundred sixty-six pages in a single day. Admittedly, today’s another nice and lazy day at home (which yesterday wasn’t), but here it is not even dinner time as I type.
You know the story. I was looking at the Book of the Month selections for July and saw a typical fantasy cover that stood out starkly from the other four books which were so incredibly modern in their design. Fantasy covers, by contrast, try to evoke an older time, while still being fresh and new in comparison…to other fantasy covers. And books in the same series, world, or by the same author tend to have a similar feel and design, allowing a reader to easily select more of the same.
I knew instantly that this cover’s format was the same as Uprooted‘s. So it wasn’t a surprise to find it was Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik’s new book. If you’ve been following along, you’ll recall that I fell head over heels in love with Uprooted when I read it. We all know I’m a sucker for fairy tales, but I am most familiar with Western European folklore, and my familiarity gets a bit weaker as you head outwards from there. With a title like Spinning Silver, you can bet my first thought was the tale of Rumpelstiltskin and the miller’s daughter who must turn straw into gold.
I opened the book and my excitement jumped for another very different reason. You may think me strange, because there was a single word that caused it – moneylender. Which is an unusual reason to be excited, yes? Why would a moneylender in a fairy tale please me so?
Because Naomi Novik’s world is a variant of our own, and that means (one of) the protagonist(s) is Jewish.
See, Christians aren’t allowed to lend money. Or weren’t in the old days. So that task fell to the Jews to provide loans and banks for the communities. It’s so nice to read books that include my people because I can look at Christian imagery ’til my eyes rot in so very many books. The religion is so prevalent and forceful…it’s everywhere, and doesn’t leave much, if any, room for any other beliefs in so many cases. Even in fairy tale or fantasy settings, if religion is mentioned it’s generally just a generic “the church” which is still taken to mean Christianity even if no names are named.
Representation matters. It matters in gender, it matters in sexuality, it matters in romantic orientation, it matters in ethnicity, and it matters in religion.
Back to the book. Spinning Silver reminded me of the later parts of The Twelve Kingdoms, those novels that had an anime based on them. The last major arc translated into English features three different young women: the King of Kei, the former princess of Shou, and a kaikyaku from Tai. These three have adventures that help them to grow and learn before they’re able to come together at the end and help stop a battle or war. Spinning Silver is not so different.
First is Miryem Mandelstam. Her father is the village’s moneylender, and also has lent money out to most of the farmers in the area too. He’s a soft heart, and will lend out any coins they have…and when he tries to collect on debts, withers and leaves at the first sign of resistence. Her mother simply endures, though her own father is a far more successful moneylender who runs an actual bank. The story begins with Miryem taking up her father’s duties and not taking “no” for an answer.
Second is Wanda Vitkus. Her father is a poor pasant farmer near the village where the Mandelstams live. He has a bad habit, since her mother’s death especially, of drinking away any coin he has. Wanda, though she doesn’t even realize it, lives a poor and deprived life doing much of the work around the farm and trying to avoid her father’s wrath.
Last is Irina, daughter of the Duke of Vysnia. She is the only child of the Duke’s first marriage, a plain enough girl who is only likely to get a decent husband because of her father, his money, his men, and his power. Her mother is said to have been a granddaughter of the Staryk, the fairy people who live in winter, hunting for mortal blood and gold. Irina does have two young brothers now from her stepmother, but she often seems as quiet and remote as the winter from whence her ancestry springs.
Through the book we see these three young women forced out of the lives they’ve always known, see them grow as they learn their own worth and power, and see them come together and move apart. I made some predictions earlier in the book, and was surprised to see how Novik moved down other paths from what I had foreseen. Of course my guesses got better the further in I went, but that’s only to be expected.
I thoroughly enjoyed Spinning Silver, and appreciated how, like Uprooted, it took me in different directions than what I would have expected for a story based on fairy tales. As with that one, I cannot speak too strongly as to what was drawn directly out of folklore and what was created wholesale. If Uprooted was Polish, Spinning Silver is Russian, with the terminology in particular to prove it. Not to mention that in Russia, winter truly can be another enemy, and one far more implacable than an army.
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say again that the more I read from Novik besides Temeraire, the more I like her. Of course, that could just be because I can read fairy tale fluff all day, even if it’s incredibly predictable, and historical fantasy just gets old much quicker. Or maybe it’s that these fairy tales don’t really touch on actual historical figures or events, just using the settings and culture. With Temeraire, once the Napoleonic wars were ended, Novik just had them explore every nook and cranny of her reimagined world and the plot conveniences necessary to get the protagonists to those corners got weaker and stupider with every successive book.
Plus there was that science fiction short story that I kind of love.
On reflection, I guess that means the weakness of the Temeraire books is that Novik went too far and too long with them. If she’d stopped just as the novelty wore off, the series would be stronger for it. And that is a warning sign. I can only hope that her new series of fairy tale books doesn’t push the bounds so far. It’s good that each so far is a different locale with a different cast of characters and no references to the other. If she keeps to that pattern, she can probably produce as many of these as she pleases. Problems are more likely to crop up if she starts belatedly weaving them into a connected web, especially given that the two thus far have satisfying endings that shouldn’t need to continue.
With that shadow of warning, I’m still happy with this day’s reading. I’m not sure what’s next up, but I have plenty of options as per usual. I did get to speak to some of my bookworm friends the other day, and I came away much reassured by the size of my Pile. After all, if someone else can have dozens of books they haven’t yet read and still choose to go out and buy more, then I don’t have to worry about my Pile taking up less than an entire shelf.
I do have to worry about how I’m going to rearrange the shelf with much of my young adult books so that all my Novik can stay together. Better take care of that now.