Spinning Silver Book Discussion and Recipe
Three young women's lives become intertwined by the magic god of winter, the Staryk, and his demands. One young woman is the daughter and granddaughter of a moneylender. But her father is weak and unwilling to call in the debts owed him. Miryem has had enough when her mother's cough brings her to the brink of death, so she becomes as shrewd as the reputation of Jewish moneylenders, and makes people pay what they owe, though her heart grows colder as she grows wealthier.
A man cannot “squeeze blood from a stone,” so Miryam has the man's daughter, strong and tall Wanda, come work for her in the house as partial payment. However, the work is a blessing. Wanda and her brothers were starving and suffering from bad winters and an alcoholic, abusive father. Before long, her brother is also hired to keep watch over the house of the moneylenders at night. Strange visitors of ice and snow have been leaving tracks outside the windows and doors.
Irina is the plain daughter of the wealthy Duke, who fears she will soon be engaged to the cruel, sadistic Tsar, also the son of a witch. In her dowry is a cold, glowing silver necklace melted down from the silver coins the Staryk left for Miryam to “turn into gold.” His demands grow greater and his promise for her reward is terrifying, yet what can she do otherwise? If she disobeys, she will be turned to ice.
Why did Miryem believe she had to be cruel to be a good moneylender? Was she better than her father? At what cost? What kind of lender was her grandfather?
What did the Staryk king bargain to Miryam if she turned his magic silver into gold three times? How did she do it? Why did he believe she was capable of that magic forever after?
What was the connection between Irina, Mirnatius, and the squirrels? How did this show his true character early?
Why wasn’t Miryam sorry she had been hard to those who had borrowed from her father? Did they, as she said, want her “to bury my mother and leave my father behind to die alone….to go be a beggar in my grandfather’s house...they would have devoured my family and picked their teeth with the bones, and never been sorry at all”? What made them so greedy and unkind to her and her kind?
Instead of treasure, what did Miryam bargain with the Staryk for her rights? How did it confine the answers she would receive about his world and its rules, even from the servants?
How did the Staryk make bargains, if not with contracts and handshakes and other gestures?
Why was it so important for Miryam to celebrate Shabbat, and how did she force the Staryk to help her know when it was?
How did those who owed Miryam’s family money treat her or Wanda when they came to collect? How, in contrast, did they treat Stepon? Why? What made him decide to do so?
What were the two cabin locations, and how were they connected? By what objects and what people? What things were completed in the cabin to improve it?
Why did Irina care if the Staryk froze the kingdom? Whom was she concerned about? Why didn’t Mirnatius care about them?
How did Miryam change all three storerooms filled with silver into gold?
What did it mean in the magic world of the Staryk to give someone a gift versus a bargain? Why was that highly offensive to the Staryk king? Are there people in our world like that, who cannot accept a gift or give a gift? What makes them (or some of the characters in this book) that way?
Why did Irina keep coming back to Mirnatius instead of staying in the magic land of ice and snow? What was her plan?
In what ways were the demon and Wanda’s father alike? Who were their victims?
Why did Wanda feel useless and unwanted in Vysnia? How did Panova Mandelstam respond to her fears and warn her about wolves in some men’s bellies?
What did those in the Staryk kingdom believe about gifts and thanks? Who was Miryam blessed to name, and why was that significant for both her and the mother of the child?
If the Staryk king didn’t make summer into winter, who did? And how?
Why was the name of the demon so important for binding it (and what was it)? Is this why the Staryk king never shared his name?
What gift did Irina give to Wanda and her brothers? Whom else was it shared with? Where did they choose to take it?
Power is a common theme in this book, even from unexpected characters. By not making a bargain with the demon, how did Irina gain power over it in the end? How did the prayers of Miryam’s people help her to “call forth” an object?
The cheesecake Miryem’s mother always made for her had a little bit of apples in it. When Miryam went out to collect money, she would take rye, grain, and a big bag of her mother’s favorite hazelnuts. As a thanks to her deceased mother for her “help,” Wanda buried an apple beneath the tree beside her mother’s grave. Often for breakfast, once money bgan coming in, Miryam and her family (and Wanda as well when she began eating breakfast with them) would eat “nut-smelling hot kasha,” which is an oatmeal or porridge-style dish.
Apple Oat Hazelnut Muffins
- 1 cup oat flour, (or oats pulsed a few mins in a food processor)
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup plus 1 tbsp granulated sugar, divided
- 1/2 cup plus 1/4 cup brown sugar, divided
- 1/2 cup canola or vegetable oil
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 2 cups apples, or two large apples, I used Granny Smith)
- 1 tbsp plus 1/2 tsp cinnamon, divided
- 1/4 cup oats
- 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) salted butter
- 1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1/2 cup hazelnuts, preferably lightly toasted
- Preheat your oven to 350° F. In the bowl of a stand mixer on medium-high speed using the paddle attachment, combine 1/2 cup of brown sugar, the granulated sugar (minus the tablespoon), and the canola oil for about 2 minutes. In a separate bowl, sift together the flours, salt, and baking powder. In a third bowl, add the diced apples, and gently fold in the tablespoons of cinnamon and sugar until well coated, using a spoon or spatula.
- When the sugars and oil are combined, drop the mixer speed to medium-low and add the Greek yogurt (or sour cream) to the bowl, followed by the vanilla extract. Then drop it to low and and the eggs, one at a time. Stop the mixer to scrape down the insides of the bowl. Turn the speed back on to low and slowly add the flour mixture in three to four portions. When all those ingredients are combined, turn off the mixer, remove the bowl, pour in the apples, and use a spoon or rubber spatula to gently fold them into the batter with a spatula; do not use the mixer for this step or it will ruin the apple chunks.
- In a small mixing bowl, add the remaining 1/3 cup of flour, the rolled oats, 1/4 cup of brown sugar, butter, the last half teaspoon of cinnamon and the ground nutmeg. Note: If the butter is still very cold from the fridge, put it in the microwave for about 15 seconds. If it’s too hard, you won’t be able to combine it. Cut the ingredients together with a pastry blender or fork (or your fingers, if you don’t mind getting messy) until the mixture is a uniform, light brown color and sticks together like a dough.
- Into greased or paper-lined two muffin tins, scoop the batter and fill each cup two-thirds of the way up, leaving room for the topping. Crumble large amounts of the topping over each muffin. Bake for 18-20 minutes or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean of raw batter. Makes 18 muffins. Baker’s tip: If you are using spray instead of paper for your muffin tins, hold the spray and the pan up vertically, then spray it. You’ll get better coverage that way. Also, sprinkle a pinch of flour into each cup over the spray, and the muffins will release more easily and completely.
Apple Oat Hazelnut Muffins
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Other books by Naomi Novik are Uprooted, about a teen girl who is chosen to live with and learn from the powerful sorcerer who lives in a tower in her village, known as the Dragon. She will learn a deeper magic than even he knows, and work together to defeat the evil corruption that dwells in the wood and is wiping out her village, in a story much like the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale. Naomi Novik is also the author of the Temeraire series, which begins with His Majesty’s Dragon.
A reference is made in this book to Scheherazade, a character in The Arabian Nights, and there are elements in this story of the fairy tales “Rumpelstiltskin,” “The Three Spinners,” “The Golden Goose,” “The Goose Girl,” “The Ugly Princess,” and the Japanese tale “Crane's Return of a Favor.” Some of these fairy tales are also featured in the novel The Seduction of Water by Carol Goodman.
Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones also has a magic king with power over the seasons who makes a deal with a young girl to make her his bride.
The novels by Patricia McKillip Winter Rose and The Bards of Bone Plain deal in magic, promised loves, and the second novel has a series of three trials and three treasures.
A magic forest also exists in Wildwood Dancing, another book based on several fairy tales, including "The Twelve Dancing Princesses," "The Princess and the Frog,"
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis has a powerful, magic queen of a frozen land making a bargain with others, like the Staryk does with Miryem
“That part of the old story turned out to be true: you have to be cruel to be a good moneylender.
But I was ready to be as merciless with our neighbors as they’d been with my father.”
“Gold doesn’t know the hand that holds it.”
“I stayed there for a long timeless moment, breathing in deep sweet cold air that filled my lungs, full of freshly cut pine branches and heavy snow and deep woods wide around me.”
“Spend one and save one; you remember the wise man’s rule.”
“A power claimed and challenged and thrice carried out is true; the proving makes it so.”
“Better to make no bargain than a bad one, and be thought of forever as an easy mark.”
“The squirrels will starve too, when the trees die.”
“Anger had always seemed pointless to me, a dog circling after its own tail. What good was it to be angry? It had all seemed equally useless to me. Anger was a fire in a grate, and I’d never had any wood to burn.”
“You have done a great working. So now he can do another in return. But high magic never comes without a price.”
“You were challenged beyond the bounds of what could be done, and found a path to make it true.”
“There are men who are wolves inside, and want to eat up other people to fill their bellies. But...you are not eaten up, and there is not a wolf inside you...That is all we can do for each other in the world, to keep the wolf away.”
“We have always heard that in the sunlit world, mortals give thanks to one another to fill the hollowness where they fail to make return...”
“Gifts, and thanks—we’ll accept from someone what they can give then, and make return to them when it’s wanted, if we can...and we can all do the more for not having to pay as we go.”
“I would rather have my affairs in the hands of a man who is content than a man who is hungry.”
“A crowd of women around me doing the ocean of women’s work that never subsided and never changed and always swallowed whatever time you gave it and wanted more, another hungry body of water. I submerged into it like a ritual bath and let it close over my head gladly.”
“But 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.”