Oh I absolutely love this book!
Three young women: Miryem, a Jewish moneylender’s daughter; Irina, the unwanted daughter of a Duke; and Wanda, a peasant girl – stand up to three different men (the Staryk (Winter) King, the demon-possessed Tsar, and her own father, respectively), and in doing so, gain power and discover their own strength, courage, and self-respect. Miryem first takes up her father’s work, hardening her heart to demand of his debtors the money or goods that are due to pay off their debts, so that she can earn the money to help her sick mother grow well again.
She also employs Wanda to help her on her rounds to her father’s debtors, as well as to help about the house, doing the heavy work to spare her mother. Wanda also earns money (as well as helping to pay off her drunken, loutish father’s debt to Miryem’s father), and when her brother Sergey is also taken on by Miryem’s family, the pair decide not to give their wages to their father who will only spend it on drink. The self-respect they both gain from being paid for their work gives them the courage to stand up to their father when he later tries to marry Wanda off against her wishes. He drunkenly lashes out at them both, and their younger brother Stepon, and is accidentally killed when he falls over one of the boys, whom he’d beaten to the ground, then falls into the fire, pulling a pot of hot soup down onto his face, burning it hideously. He dies almost immediately from his injuries.
Miryem mistakenly boasts to her mother than she can change silver into gold while the pair are driving back from a visit to her grandfather, on a road that runs near to the Staryk King’s road. He learns of her boast and gives her some silver coins which she takes to a jeweller in the Jewish Quarter of the town where her grandfather lives. The jeweller melts the coins down and turns them into a silver ring, for which Irina’s father pays him handsomely in gold. The jeweller pays Miryem for the silver coins with some of the gold coins, and she gives them to the Staryk King. He leaves considerably more coins with her the next time, and they are turned into a silver necklace, which the Duke buys for Irina, deciding to marry her to the Tsar, if he can. A third purse of silver coins become a crown, which Irina wears to her wedding.
The Staryk King then captures Miryem and takes her back to his Kingdom, where it’s perpetually winter and tells her she must turn 3 storerooms full of silver coins into gold – but by doing so she will create a perpetual winter in her homeland, where the winters have already been growing consistently longer and harder, with crop and food shortages that afflict everyone.
Meanwhile, Irina marries the Tsar, who’s possessed by a fire demon called Chernobog, with whom his mother made a deal to give him gifts, including beauty, before he was born. Irina has no desire to lie with such a man, and she discovers that when she’s wearing the ring, necklace and crown made from Staryk silver she can pass through any reflective surface into a frozen world which she later discovers is the Staryk Kingdom (she has Staryk blood in her from her mother, which doubtless helps). She flees there at night to avoid sharing a bed with Mirnatius, the Tsar, and eventually takes through her serving woman, Magreta, where she encounters Miryem. The two young women, both wedded to men who are deadly to their people, conspire to bring the Staryk King and the Tsar to Vysnia in the hope that both will be rid of their unwanted husbands when the fire demon consumes the Winter King.
Because the Staryk can make people forget them, Miryem’s parents, who’ve taken in Stepon after Wanda and Sergey flea for fear of being hung for causing the death of their father, forget about her existence for a while, until her mother suddenly remembers and the pair, along with Stepon, immediately set out to Vysnia, thinking Miryem is there, staying with her maternal grandparents. En route, they encounter Wanda and Sergey, who are staying in a house that exists on the border between the Staryk kingdom and their own country, Lithvas.
The five of them travel on to Vysnia where Miryem’s cousin is to be married to the jeweller who turned the Staryk silver into jeweller for Irina’s father, and Miryem gets the Staryk king to bring her to the wedding, while Irina brings Mirnatius there also. The demon-possessed Tsar and the Winter king fight, and eventually Miryem and Irina, together with Miryem’s parents, and Wanda and her brothers, managed to bind the Staryk king with a silver chain and he is taken down a secret tunnel and left bound in a ruined tower at the edge of the town. Chernobog feeds from the Staryk king, but doesn’t outright kill him, and Miryem decides that she cannot destroy all of the Staryk kingdom, not after three of the King’s servants risked helping her when she had to change 3 storerooms’ worth of silver coins into gold ones in only 3 days, and she had named the daughter of one of the servants who had helped her. So she sets the King free again, but because nothing can be given freely by a Staryk, Miryem gives him her help in return for a promise that the King will no longer attempt to destroy Lithvas with an eternal winter.
Unfortunately, when Irina realises what Miryem has done, she takes Chernobog through the looking glass in her mirror into the Staryk kingdom, and he sets about destroying it – a relatively easy task for a fire demon to accomplish in a kingdom that is made up entirely of ice and snow. Miryem gets the Staryk King back to his kingdom, and at his request, agrees to help him and his people against Chernobog. She is able to use her ability (which only exists in the Staryk kingdom) to turn silver coins into gold ones with a touch against Chernobog, reducing him to a mere ‘coal’ inside Mirnatius, and when he goes storming back to the Palace, Irina puts her Staryk silver ring on Mirnatius’ finger so the demon leaps out of him, landing on the carpet, which begins smouldering. A quick-thinking scullery-maid immediately up-ends a bucket of ash and sand on top of the coal, intending to stop it from causing a fire, and effectively putting out the demon, leaving Mirnatius free of it for the first time since before he was born.
After 6 months labouring to repair the damage done by Chernobog in the Staryk kingdom, the king takes Miryem to see her parents on the first day of snow, and he formally asks for her hand in marriage, having already stolen her away and forced her into the Staryk version of marriage without her consent. She agrees, so long as he will agree to be married according to Jewish custom, and so long as he will bring her to visit her family whenever she wishes during the winter months (since he cannot bring her back to Lithvas except via the Staryk road, which can only come to Lithvas during the winter) and two weeks later, they’re married.
I received an e-ARC of this book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.