Matthew Cavanagh looks at a fantasy novella with a fresh spin on the traditional.
Spiderlight • Publisher: Tor • RRP: £8.99 • Author: Adrian Tchaikovsky • Published: 2016-08-02
The Church of Ames of the Light has battled the Forces of Darkness for as long as anyone can remember. The great prophecy has foretold that a band of misfits, led by a high priestess will defeat the Dark Lord Darvezian, armed with their wits, the blessing of the Light and an artefact stolen from the merciless Spider Queen.
Their journey will be long, hard and fraught with danger. Allies will become enemies; enemies will become allies. And the Dark Lord will be waiting, always waiting.
The above introduction in some ways sounds as one that could apply to one of, ooh say a zillion fantasy novels post Tolkien, it even has Dark Lord capitalised. But I urge you to stay a little while and note that this is a tale from Clarke-nominated author Adrian Tchaikovsky, an author I never find boring but always innovative and hopefully you will find it well worth taking your time to read a novella that challenges the binary nature of fantasy.
On a simple level the plot is one we know and love. A priestess, two warriors, a thief and a wizard have finally found out a way to defeat the latest Dark Lord to take over the world and bring the Light back to the people of the world. There is of course a quest and a journey (no map included) but our band of heroes lose their certainty over so much when they come across Giant Spiders.
In particular, for this scheme to work they need to form an alliance with one of the oldest Spider tribes and because people may look with suspicion on a group of travellers with a Giant Spider in tow (could happen) the wizard has a brilliant idea to transform the ‘volunteer’ into a humanoid Spider. The party has Enth who looks human if you don’t count his eyes and can ignore his fangs.
Enth is a brilliant way for us to get to know the characters and the world we then move around in. He is a person who does not now belong to either world and looks at everything afresh. Initially all of the wandering group view him as a tool and one with a considerable amount of suspicion as Spiders firmly belong to the Dark. But each member of the team has to start to ask themselves why exactly is he hated? This is very much a tale of moral certainty in fantasy being questioned. Should we not challenge things that history tells us? Just because the evil things are done for a good cause does that make the Light right?
The novella does a very good job of quickly introducing our central squad of characters. We have Dion the Priestess – although armed with mighty power she constantly feels she is not up to the task. Alongside her is Harathes, one of the Ames’ greatest priests who sees all in black and white and fights alongside Cyrene, who wants to atone for past misdeeds (and is getting fed up of being objectified by most men she meets). The team are aided by Penthos, a mighty wizard who has many motives for helping the troupe and Lief, the cunning thief forced to help rather than a willing volunteer. Each of these characters will find Enth challenges their preconceptions and how they react to and then interact with the wider group changes. It’s a very modern look at morality and works really well.
Readers too will find their reactions questioned. Two battles with monsters bookend the story and while you may react to one with triumph you may feel less enthusiastic as you start to understand how Enth sees the world. The story is not saying good = evil but it does recognise that lives are on the line and our own biases may shape those decisions. For me a good story is one that makes you think long afterwards and changes how you read books in the future. This is one of those tales.
In the last year Adrian Tchaikovsky has successfully tackled gunpowder fantasy in the excellent Guns of the Dawn and the excellent First Contact/Generation Starship crossover in Children of Time (nominated for the Clarke Award). In this Tor Novella Tchaikovsky has looked at the traditional quest story and again given it a modern overhaul to make it a very engaging read. I just hope more tales in this world can be spun.
Listen to the time that Adrian visited Emma Newman's tea lair in Tea and Jeopardy.