Recent Reading Roundup 50
We haven't done one of these in a while, and indeed the books discussed here cover a wide span of time. They include two books that were nominated for the Hugo this year (though neither won), and another that was longlisted for the Booker award (though not shortlisted). In the interim, I also wrote about Jason Lutes's Berlin, an omnibus containing his monumental comic about Weimar-era Berlin, over at Lawyers, Guns & Money.
- Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman - The first hundred pages of Coleman's debut novel tell a familiar story. In the baking outback and wilderness of Australia, multiple storylines relate how the Natives are abused, corralled, and brainwashed by the Settlers. Jacky, a teenage runaway, reflects on his childhood at a mission school, where beatings and starvation were deployed to stamp out his culture and the memory of his family, and to instill in him a sense of inferiority that will make him a docile servant. Esperance, a young woman living in one of the last encampments of free Natives, worries that Settler encroachment is pushing her people further into the desert, where it's harder to survive and where the odds of being rounded up, separated, and remanded to a life of slavery and abuse increase with every passing day. Johnny, a deserting Settler soldier, tries to appease his conscience for participating in massacres of the Natives by joining one of their outlaw gangs, lending them his military expertise and superior weaponry. And the functionaries of this system--the nun who runs the school where Jacky was abused, the bureaucrat in charge of Native affairs--seethe with hatred for the inhospitable territory they've been assigned to and for the willful, "ungrateful" native population they've been tasked with molding into a useful underclass.
So far, so familiar, but Terra Nullius was published by Small Beer Press, and the book's back matter hints at a twist to the novel's premise. Most experienced readers of science fiction will guess what that twist is simply by being told that it exists (if not sooner), and Coleman indeed ends up revealing that her novel is set in the future, that the Natives are humans, and that the Settlers are alien invaders who have colonized the entire planet and exterminated most of humanity, but for whom Australia poses a challenge because of its inhospitable climate. These kind of obvious references to European colonization persist throughout the novel, down to its title, which refers to the legal fiction by which Australia was declared "empty territory" and thus subject to British seizure, regardless of the feelings of the many Indigenous people already living there. But the actual story is an SFnal one, complete with spaceships and rayguns, and with the very real possibility of human extermination lingering in the background.
If you've seen this trope once or twice before, you might be forgiven for approaching Terra Nullius with some trepidation. At its worst, it's a device that can be glib and dismissive, reducing complicated situations to simplistic parallels, and working from the assumption (which is sometimes justified) that white readers can only have sympathy for victims of colonialism if they can imagine them as white. And, to be fair, there are moments in Terra Nullius in which it is obvious that Coleman (who is herself an Indigenous Australian) is approaching the genre, and this particular trope, as an outsider. Some of the worldbuilding she does feels awkward, designed to smooth over rough patches in her metaphor, such as her assertion that preexisting racial divisions among humans disappeared after the alien invasion. But Terra Nullius is written with such conviction, and speaks of such a profound wound, one that is still relatively under-discussed in genre fiction, that one can't help but be won over by it. Though I spent the last two thirds of the novel feeling uncertain about Coleman's central device, her characters remain vivid and heartbreaking, as they observe the destruction of their world, and are constantly reminded of the inevitability of their culture's erasure. In a genre that so often trades in tales of triumphant rebellions against evil colonizers, it's worth remembering that in our own history, that sort of victory is very much the exception to the rule. We're long overdue for science fiction that reflects that sad truth.
- Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman - Hartman's follow-up to her delightful, idiosyncratic medieval-Europe-with-dragons-and-plucky-young-heroines duology, Seraphina and Shadow Scale, takes its eponymous heroine on a journey of healing and self-discovery. Tess is Seraphina's human half-sister, and her novel is set a few years after the end of Shadow Scale. But the conflicts between humans and dragons, and the difficulties that hybrids like Seraphina and others like her experience in their quest to be accepted by both societies, are only a background detail here. Which is fitting, because Tess is just a normal human, and her problems are normal human ones for which she doesn't have the sort of magical escape hatch that her half-sister was able to make use of. Several years ago, the inquisitive, adventurous Tess made a foolhardy error in judgment (or at least, that's how she thinks of it; the more the reader learns about Tess's "fall", the more obvious it becomes that she was horribly taken advantage of) that has closed off the already limited prospects her restrictive religious upbringing offered her. Now she's forced to do penance by working in service to her "good" sister, Jeanne, trying to secure her a rich husband who will restore their family's fortunes, after which she's to be packed off to a nunnery. Bitter and full of self-loathing, Tess sees no way out of her predicament except through the bottle, until a bit of prodding from Seraphina reminds her that there's a world outside of her family's narrow, suffocating circle. She steals a few provisions and sets off on her own, with no real destination in mind except away.
Much as I enjoyed it, my main complaint against Shadow Scale was that Hartman's gift at worldbuilding--she constructs the history of her alternative Europe with elegance and verve, bringing its nations to immediate life--was allowed to run wild, leading to a novel that was on the baggy side. Tess of the Road might have been written with that complaint in mind, as it utterly perfects the balance between exploring Hartman's fascinating world and weaving a strong narrative through it. Tess's journey is, by its nature, episodic. She learns how to steal and how to work, spends time on a road crew, flirts with shepherdesses by pretending to be vagabond on the run from his crimes, and even helps some people even more marginalized than herself. But running through it, and through the lives of most of the people she meets, is deep pain, and the need to get the distance from it that is the only hope of true healing. Again and again, Tess encounters people who, like herself, have been twisted up by their families' expectations, by limited and limiting options, and by cruelty and abuse. By learning to understand them, she gains a greater understanding of, and compassion towards, herself. But that process is hardly linear. As Tess tries to grow past the person her life has made of her, she is brought up short by her inability to forgive herself for not living up to an ideal that we eventually realize is not only unrealistic, but damaging, and must struggle repeatedly with her traumas before she can overcome them. A particularly powerful choice is the novel's determination to deal honestly with sexuality and sexual ethics, starting with Tess's anger at the way the double standard in her society treats promiscuous men as lovable rogues, and the women they seduce as irretrievably damaged and better off dead. Tess's process of healing is bound up in owning her sexuality and the way it has been abused--by both the men who desire her, and the women who treat her as responsible for that desire.
Tess's companion throughout most of this journey is Pathka, a quigutl, a cousin-race to dragons who have found themselves caught in the interstices between prejudiced humans and disdainful dragons. Pathka is on a spiritual quest to find the World Serpent, a mythological creature said to have given the world life. Which is how Hartman introduces one of the most delightful elements of the worldbuilding in all of her novels, the joyful and complicated handling of religion, mythology, and spirituality. Religion can mean many things in her books--it is the misogynistic creed that has taught Tess to hate herself and her body; it is the selfless care that the nuns she encounters offer to the sick and indigent; it is the joyous erudition of the monks who invite her to admire their library; and it is the search for the numinous that consumes Pathka (and allows him to run away from parts of his painful past, such as his responsibility to his neglected child Kikiu) and offers Tess a new sort of meaning to cling to. I don't know a lot of YA books that could do everything that Hartman manages to do in Tess of the Road--tell a good adventure story with a compelling heroine, address weighty issues like rape culture and the sexual double standard, and ask what we look for when we look for god. That Hartman manages all of this in a single, effortlessly readable volume (though the novel's ending is a blatant hook for a sequel, it also works perfectly well as a work in its own right) is once again a reminder that she is one of the most vital voices in the genre, and that her works are must-reads for anyone who cares about any of the wide-ranging topics she covers in her writing.
- My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite - This might seem like a strange thing to say, but Braithwaite's debut--originally self-published in Nigeria in 2017, and reprinted in the US and UK to great acclaim last year--makes for an interesting pairing with Tess of the Road. Both novels are about pairs of sisters, about corrosive sexual mores, and about how embodying certain types of femininity can become a trap from which the only escape is a violent one. Our narrator, Korede, is the "good" sister. Responsible, hard-working, a good cook and fastidious cleaner. That last trait comes in handy when Korede is repeatedly called to the aid of Ayoola, her beautiful, scatterbrained, selfish sister, who keeps finding herself with dead paramours. Ayoola claims that her boyfriends attacked her, and at first Korede believes her. But eventually she's forced to notice that Ayoola never seems to have a mark on her, and that not all the men she kills seem to have been prone to violence. More than moral outrage, however, what Korede increasingly feels towards Ayoola is resentment, for the way she floats through life, her beauty inoculating her from the need to take care of herself or take responsibility for her actions, and for the way she leaves it to Korede to clean up her messes. When Ayoola turns her attention to Tade, Korede's colleague on whom she's long nurtured a crush, Korede is torn between the need to protect her sister (and herself) and her concern that Tade will become Ayoola's next victim.
My Sister, the Serial Killer is short and punchy, told in brief chapters that jump back and forth in time, revealing how the sisters have had a similar dynamic--Ayoola admired and desired, Korede ignored and doing all the work--since childhood. It also reveals the darkness in their family's past, their abusive, openly unfaithful father, who views both girls as extensions of himself and their sexuality as his to control. That darkness is reflected in many of Korede's interactions with men in her society, from policemen who hassle her for bribes, to the married men who don't even bother hiding the tan line on their ring finger when they come to court her sister. Even Tade, whom the early chapters single out as a kind, gentle man, turns out to be a disappointment, ignoring Korede's obvious affection for him and deciding that he's in love with Ayoola for no reason beyond the fact that she's beautiful. It would be glib to say that My Sister, the Serial Killer is arguing that Ayoola's actions are justified because of sexism and rape culture. But what the novel does demand--from Korede, if not from us--is to take a side. She can side with men who will never see her as valuable, who will take pleasure in her good cooking and clean home, but dismiss her because she isn't beautiful, and whose treatment of even a beautiful woman like her sister is self-centered and oblivious. Or she can dedicate her life to being the caretaker of a monster, to picking up after a psychopath who will almost certainly kill again. This is the only freedom a woman like Korede is offered, and it's left for us to decide whether that fact is a tragedy, or whether Korede is enough of a monster in her own way that this bind is no more than she deserves.
- Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg - To begin with, Rosenberg's strange, challenging novel feels like a very familiar type of historical fiction. A framing story introduces us to an academic, Dr. Voth, who has found a manuscript claiming to be the true and accurate account of the lives of Jack Sheppard and Edgeworth Bess, the 18th century renegades and robbers who have been immortalized in a succession of folktales, ballads, and penny dreadfuls, reaching all the way to modern work like Brecht's Threepenny Opera. In Voth's version of the story, Jack is a transgender man, and Bess is the daughter of a press-ganged South Asian sailor who jumped ship in England and joined a band of free-thinkers trying to keep landowners from draining the fens. As the buy-in to a historical novel, this kind of modern spin on preexisting material is hardly unusual--since, after all, free-thinkers and transgender people existed then as well as now. But the further one gets into Confessions of the Fox, the clearer it becomes that Rosenberg's project with it is something far more twisty. There are, for example, the Pale Fire-esque footnotes from Voth, which initially provide historical context and definitions for slang terms, but eventually segue into discussions of Voth's life (as a transgender man himself, who talks about his struggles with intimacy and relationships) and his professional troubles. It eventually becomes clear that the present Voth is writing from is semi-dystopian, with the university he works for constantly curtailing the humanities, subjecting scholars of "useless", status-quo challenging material like Voth to constant interference and increasing indignities from the Dean of Surveillance. Finally, Voth is informed that in order to keep his job, he has to turn over his manuscript notes on the Confessions to the conglomerate that has been buying more and more influence in the university. His footnotes become a struggle with a cheerful but insistent representative of that company, Sullivan, whose interest in the manuscript quickly turns sinister.
By this point, the reader will probably have noticed that something about Jack and Bess's adventures feels slightly off. The entire project of historical fiction, trying to capture the language and mindset of people in the past while still speaking to issues relevant to the present, doesn't really seem to have been attempted. Instead the novel feels modern in a way that is disorienting and hard to put one's finger on. Bess's antipathy towards the police as instruments of the state and of its capitalistic taskmasters, for example, feels like the perspective of a 21st century person--not that an outlaw in 1724 wouldn't hate the police, but not in terms that feel so much like something a modern radical might say. Similarly, Voth's footnoted conflict with Sullivan over the latter's prurient insistence on getting concrete information about the appearance of Jack's genitals and the exact specifications of the gender-confirmation treatments he's undergone makes sense given current attitudes within the transgender community. But the fact that the manuscript just happens to fall in line with those attitudes, to draw a respectable veil over any discussion of Jack's physical form, feels extremely convenient, as if the writer of the manuscript (who is never identified) just happened to share Voth's modern perspective. By the time Jack and Bess discover a method of producing synthetic testosterone, the lines between past and present feel impossibly blurred.
It doesn't take very long to realize that this is all deliberate, and that Rosenberg's project with Confessions is precisely to comment on the way that historical fiction uses the appearance of realism to tell stories rooted in its own moment, and in modern preoccupations. The revelation he eventually makes about the nature of the manuscript and the reason for its strange feeling of modernity is both in keeping with that approach, and with the novel's deeply-felt radicalism. I was reminded of Sofia Samatar's The Winged Histories, whose characters questioned whether they could use imperialist tools like written language and codified history to advance an anti-imperialist project. Rosenberg's characters, similarly, throw all concerns of accuracy and historical fact out the window in their determination to advance their political agenda. We've been written out of history, they seem to be saying, so now we're going to write ourselves back in whether it's specifically accurate to this particular case or not. And if you can't trust your history books anymore because of our actions, well, welcome to life for the rest of us. It makes for a disorienting reading experience, especially if (like myself) you had picked up the book expecting a straightforward historical romp. But Confessions is so assured, and so decidedly its own thing, that one can't help but trust it, and Rosenberg, to carry you along.
- The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell - Serpell's debut novel has a familiar format, the multigenerational family saga spanning the history of a nation--in this case Zambia--from the colonial era to the present day. But it is so full of its own distinctive flourishes that it resists any attempt at pigeonholing. It incorporates such wide-ranging subjects as the history of the damming of the Zambezi river; weird offshoots of the Zambian independence movement and its Marxist flank, such as the revolutionary Edward Makuka Nkoloso, who in his later years tried to jumpstart the fledgling Zambian nation into the space race; and the quest for an HIV vaccine, which involves screening African sex workers for potential immunity. It spans not only time, but genre--in its earlier segments, set in the first half of the 20th century, it features magical realist elements such as a woman who is born covered head to toe with hair, which sometimes exhibits prehensile properties. Or another woman who cries nonstop for decades, until everything in her vicinity is coated with salt. But in its modern segments (which stretch a little way into the future) the novel turns its attention to just-around-the-corner technologies like CRISPR-based gene therapy that confers HIV immunity but also causes changes in skin pigmentation, or armies of solar-powered microdrones that swarm together, providing internet connectivity outside the control of an oppressive government. Sections of the novel are narrated by mosquitoes, who blithely observe how their position as disease-spreaders has, over time, been usurped by both scarier diseases than malaria, and by the spread of technology and information and their attendant dangers. The result is a novel that can feel hard to pin down, but also never less than engrossing.
Most of The Old Drift is divided into three segments, titled "The Grandmothers", "The Mothers" and "The Children", which follow three families bound together by an event that took place in the early 20th century, the crippling of a young Tonga boy by the daughter of an Italian prospector in The Old Drift, an early European settler town established near Victoria Falls (of which the only remnant today is a cemetery). The family trees descended from the victim, the perpetrator, and the man who witnessed the attack (and who later nearly shot the same boy, mistaking him for an animal) twist around one another in ways most members aren't even aware of. They also all end up tied to the fortunes of Northern Rhodesia, later Zambia, as it emerges from colonialism and into independence. A running theme throughout the first two groups of chapters--in which the point of view characters are all women--is the intersection of revolution, and of anti-colonial liberation movements, with sexism and class prejudice. Agnes, a young British woman in the 1960s, falls in love with Zambian student Ronald, and runs off with him over the objections of her family (in one of the novel's most darkly humorous moments, Agnes is able to overcome a lifetime of racist conditioning because she has recently lost her sight, and can't bring herself to care about differences of skin color the way she used to). But despite persisting against racist institutions and the disapproval of society, Agnes and Ronald's love founders over their differing intellectual pretensions. Ronald, an up-and-comer in the young nation's intelligentsia, learns to despise Agnes for being neither a traditional village wife nor the jewel in his crown that he expected a white wife to be, finally concluding that "white women were just women". In another story, bright village girl Matha is radicalized when her mother's anti-colonial activity lands her in prison, but she finds herself cast out of the movement when she becomes pregnant, because its leader fears that he will be accused of fathering her child. The two women's children will end up becoming lovers, but Agnes's son Lionel will thoughtlessly pass along HIV to his wife and son, even as he furiously researches HIV resistance among sex workers, including Matha's daughter Sylvia.
It's a theme that feels less prominent in the novel's final, present- and near-future-set segment. In fact, the entire novel's tone changes in these chapters. Whereas in the previous segments The Old Drift and its characters had felt weighed down by history, trapped by political currents, inherited debts, and dynastic crimes, here there is suddenly a sense of freedom and possibility. The three descendants of the families we'd been following come together to form a revolutionary triad--middle class, biracial Joseph brings the ideas, slum-born Jacob brings the technological know-how, and Naila, the descendant of Indian and Italian colonizers, provides a much-needed sense of showmanship. Together they come up with a plan with the potential to transform their country, freeing it from the vestiges of colonialism, the encroachment of capitalistic interests, and the corruption of their government. It all leads to an ending which Serpell carries off with remarkable verve, and which, if it doesn't quite turn The Old Drift into a work of science fiction, at least gives off a vibe that SF readers will recognize and appreciate. As obvious as Serpell's intention with this tonal shift is, it can still leave The Old Drift feeling a little lopsided, the heavier, history-laden earlier segments sitting a bit oddly with the more vibrant later ones (it's not a surprise to discover, in the acknowledgements, that a few of the novel's early chapters were published as individual short stories; they have that feel of existing for themselves more than to service the greater structure of the novel). But it is also so fascinating and well-crafted, and its ending is so energetic and vivid, that these slight infelicities are easy to forgive.
- The Dollmaker by Nina Allan - Allan's latest novel has a narrative that weaves around itself, spinning stories within stories in a nested structure that should be confusing but somehow works. Reclusive dollmaker Andrew answers a personal ad by the equally reclusive Bramber, in which she asks for information about the life of a famed mid-twentieth century author and dollmaker, Ewa Chaplin. Andrew and Bramber begin to exchange letters, and he becomes convinced that they are destined to be together, and sets on a meandering trip through the English countryside with the ultimate goal of arriving at the group home where Bramber has lived her entire adult life. Along the way he tells us about his life and how he came to collect and later make antique-style dolls. Set apart by his diminutive stature, Andrew had a lonely childhood, punctuated only by a sexual interlude with an older man and fellow doll aficionado (which the reader will easily recognize as abusive but which Andrew remains more ambivalent about). Even in adulthood he has few friends, and despite the artistic outlet offered by his dollmaking he comes off as disconnected from his emotions. The reader can't help but fear that his project to meet Bramber is driven by delusions and unacknowledged loneliness, and that it will come to a tragic end.
Bramber, meanwhile, writes Andrew elliptical letters that similarly skip between past and present, describing the community of patients and employees at her group home, and slowly converging on the reason for her hospitalization. Between the two narratives, we are treated to the short stories of Ewa Chaplin, tales in which dysfunctional families and fractured relationships are laid out against backdrops that seem familiar, but suddenly turn fantastical and otherworldly. Recurring through these stories is the image of a dwarf who dares to love a queen, and is mutilated and executed for his presumption. This is not our only indication that fact and fiction are blurring in the world of The Dollmaker, but the novel itself never fully commits on this point. It is impossible, in fact, to pin down its genre--it might be nothing more than a character-driven novel about people who live in their minds, and find resonances between the art that speaks to them and the events of their own lives. Or it might be that Bramber, Andrew, and Ewa are in some sort of communication across time and parallel universes. Like Allan's previous novel, The Rift, The Dollmaker is in no rush to commit to an interpretation, and is content to keep readers on their toes, searching for connections and clues that enrich the reading experience but don't add up to a definitive answer.
Besides this intellectual exercise, the pleasures of The Dollmaker lie in Allan's careful worldbuilding. The Chaplin stories are delightful, each in their own way, some cruel--a pregnant schoolteacher conceives an irrational hatred for one of her students, and suffers horrific consequences--and some benevolent--a student whose lover has been seduced by her glamorous aunt must decide whether to pursue a drastic scheme of revenge, or find a way to move on with her life. And Bramber's tales of her family history and her present-day life in the group home have a warm, homey feeling, especially when intercut with Andrew's travelogue as he makes his way to her, staying in small villages and run-down inns, eating lonely meals that he pretends not to mind. The novel ends up feeling like a portrait of a certain corner of England (albeit one that feels unmoored in time--cellphones are mentioned briefly but hardly ever used, and the internet doesn't play much of a role in the story). I was less fond of Andrew than I think the narrative wanted me to be--as justified as his wariness of people was, it felt to me that he had never developed the tools to be good for anyone who did take the time to get past his defenses. But the book's ending, in which Andrew and Bramber finally meet, is wondefully anticlimactic, requiring just enough growth from both characters to be believable, and leaving them both space to continue growing without forcing them to define their relationship. The Dollmaker is (deliberately, I assume) a hard novel to sum up, but at its core it is about the hope that the cruelty of the worlds described in Ewa Chaplin's stories can be overcome, and that misfits like Andrew and Bramber can make new beginnings.
- Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik - Like Novik's previous novel, Uprooted, Spinning Silver takes place in a fantasized pre-industrial Eastern Europe. And like that earlier novel, it has the feel of a fairy tale retelling without really being a straight version of any particular story--"Rumpelstiltskin" is referenced, obviously, but so are "Cinderella", "Hansel and Gretel", "Rapunzel", and probably bits of regional folklore that I didn't recognize. What matters more than any of these plot details is the sense of story-ness that wafts over the novel, the feeling, from its first chapter, that its characters are just on the cusp of being carried off on a fantastic adventure, both wonderful and terrible. To begin with, however, the novel's concerns are quite prosaic. We are introduced to Miryem, the daughter of a moneylender too soft-hearted to make his collections, who takes over her father's business and proves herself an able businesswoman. Then to Wanda, a poor farmer's daughter who escapes her abusive home when Miryem takes her on as a servant in payment of her father's debt, and finds not only unexpected warmth and kindness in Miryem's home, but the opportunity to learn new skills and expand her world. And finally to Irina, the unappreciated daughter of a minor duke, with little to look forward to but an unspectacular marriage at her father's behest. What ties these three women together is the fact that the novel's world is bedeviled by the Staryk, elf-like creatures who love the cold and cause harsh, overlong winters, during which they raid human settlements, stealing gold. When the Staryk king overhears Miryem boasting that she can turn silver into gold, he charges her to do the same with his enchanted silver. This, when transformed into jewelry, unleashes Irina's latent Staryk heritage, making her irresistible to men. The exchange between the two women thus puts them both on the path to marriages they don't want, to men who aren't what they seem. Irina's father parlays her newfound charm into a marriage with the tsar, who turns out to be possessed by a fire demon who wants to devour her and anyone else of Staryk blood. And when Miryem completes the Staryk king's tasks, he carries her off to his kingdom to be his queen. Both women have to figure out how to outsmart their husbands, and prevent them from destroying the human world--one with fire, the other with ice.
Spinning Silver is busy, not to say overstuffed. Wanda's storyline, for example, in which not only she but her two brothers become caught up in Miryem's troubles, doesn't really need to exist, but it's clear that Novik was compelled by the narrative of an abuse victim breaking away from her old life and learning to make real connections, and of a barely-functional family reforming itself into something real and nurturing. The same can be said of a lot of the novel's cul-de-sacs. Its frequent discussions of the antisemitism experienced by its Jewish characters--whose expressions range from unspoken hostility to out-and-out violence--and the way they order their lives in preparation for it, are extremely well done, and unusual in fantasy novel. But they don't really dovetail with any of the novel's themes, nor do they play a central role in its plot. Though the Jews in the duke's town are integral to securing the novel's happy ending, for example, we're never told that this leads to safer or freer lives for them, or even that their contributions were ignored; the matter is simply never raised.
What does run through the novel is its preoccupation with debt in its many forms. Miryem can harden her heart against her father's debtors because she sees them as scroungers who were content to forget their obligations while her family starved. (It's honestly a little strange to come to a novel published in 2018 and find such a sympathetic take on a debt collector, and such vehemence against people who can't pay back their loans; even if Miryem's moral calculus is correct for the time and place in question, it reads a little oddly in ours.) For Wanda, meanwhile, even though she's effectively an indentured servant (which is how the people in the village see it, fueling resentment against Miryem and her family), being in debt is liberating, because it means she can't be sold outright by her drunken father. When Miryem travels to the Staryk realm, she encounters a culture that takes her obsession with honoring debts to its furthest extreme, where nothing can be given without exchange, and where failing to live up to an obligation is punishable by death. And when both Miryem and Irina triumph over their respective demon lovers, they find that there are greater, intangible debts binding them, to common decency and their basic humanity. Like Uprooted, Spinning Silver is less interested in telling a story about good triumphing over evil than one in which evil can be transformed, in which it is possible to save the world without destroying another one. The frequent riffing on the concept of indebtedness finally builds to the conclusion that for every person, there are deals they won't make, things they won't sell, no matter the offered price. Its heroines' triumphs come not from defeating their enemies, but from recognizing these limits, and acting as they owe to themselves and to others.
(As an aside, I think it's interesting that after taking a bit of criticism over the end of Uprooted--in which the heroine ended up with a barely-reformed bad boy even though her friendship with another girl could easily have been changed into a romance--Novik's response has been to render the relationships between her heroines cordial and utilitarian, while fielding not one but two sexy villains who end up with the protagonists despite not really doing enough to change over the course of the novel. One obvious justification for Wanda's existence in the novel, for example, would have been as Miryem's love interest, and it's strange that Novik chose to go another way once again.)