Miryem was tired of being poor. She was tired of being cold, scrounging for food, and listening to her mother cough. She had seen a better life. Her mother’s family lived in the city in an impressive house, and they gave her delicious food and fine clothes when she visited. In their little village, though, her parents were scorned and hated because they were the only Jewish people in town—and because they were moneylenders.
Panov and Panovna Mandelstam’s pity and kindness made them the worst moneylenders in the world. When her mother’s health plunged to frightening lows, Miryem took matters into her own hands and went door to door to collect the debts their neighbors owed them. She had observed her grandfather and had learned to read and do sums. The villagers found her quite intimidating. Not only did she collect payments, though, she also learned to trade shrewdly, and soon her family was well fed, and she was putting gold into a safe at her grandfather’s house. She hired servants, and their lives were changed.
Miryem’s success did not go unobserved, particularly by the king of the Staryk, an icy civilization that existed in a world parallel to hers. The Staryk usually kept to their own pursuits, but when they were greedy or irritated with the humans, one could see their frozen roads shining closer than usual to the people’s homes. One day, the Staryk king knocked on the Mandelstams’ door and handed Miryem a small sack of silver coins, demanding that she change them into gold. Miryem knew that she had no magic powers, but could only change silver to gold in the mortal way: trading material things for a higher price. When she succeeded the first time, the Staryk set higher and higher tasks for her, until the day came when he carried her off to his crystalline castle, where she would marry him, become his prisoner, and change all the silver in his kingdom into gold.
Novik, author of the bestselling Uprooted, tells this story in several voices, as Miryem’s life touches and changes many others. As forces both human and supernatural threaten to bring permanent winter to the land, Miryem bands together with the young tsarina in a fight to save their loved ones’ lives. The plan will take courage, trust in their co-conspirators, perfect timing, and the ability to move back and forth between parallel worlds without detection. Fiery demons and icy faeries move in a fantastical Russian landscape in this feminist retelling of Rumpelstiltskin.
For adult fans of retold fairy tales, this novel is fast-paced, thrilling, and even a bit romantic. Highly recommended.
Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.