Reviewer’s Note: My copy of Spiderlight was provided by Tor. The novel releases on August 2nd, 2016 and can be preordered here
It’s probably fair to say that anyone who likes fantasy as a genre has a long history with high fantasy as a part of that genre. Heroes off to save the world from evil gods, warlords, or, in some cases, both! It’s fun stuff, or at least was. My high-school days were filled with Warcraft and Dragonlance and probably other examples of big magic, one-dimensional villains, and Mary Sue heroes doing what Mary Sue heroes do.
As an adult though, I really have no time for it.
Unless…unless an author can really change things around, play with expectations, and in general, have fun with the absurdity of five rag-tag heroes off to save the world from a badguy so big that armies can’t topple him. I might be on board for that.
Oh hello Spiderlight by Adrian Tchaikovsky, how are you this fine day? Off to tell a story about five rag-tag heroes on a quest to save the world by transforming a giant spider into a man and forcing him on your journey? That’s different. Are you also not going to take your story too seriously because let’s face it, high fantasy is absurd? Good. How about playing with my expectations? Wonderful!
There are a few key things that make Spiderlight a joyful and interesting experience, but the biggest one is Nth. Nth is a spider with limited sapience. He doesn’t like humans unless he’s eating them, and he loves his brood mother. That’s about it. Or it would be had our wizard character Penthos not twisted and contorted him into the shape of a man and given him more intellect than he knows what to do with.
On first glance, Nth is your standard fish-out-of-water character; however, Spiderlight messes with that trope by making him as pitiful as possible. He isn’t a hero; he’s a slave to the heroes. He hates being a human, and he hates these new concepts and emotions he’s now forced to endure.
It doesn’t help that everyone hates him too.
The setup makes it very easy to sympathize with Nth and downright revile his companions who are supposed to be on the side of Light. Dion is a paladin! Harathes is too! The other three are…well, less heroic, but still on the side of righteousness. They should know better, and in your typical high-fantasy world where good is good and evil is evil, they would have. This isn’t your typical high-fantasy world though, so Penthos looks at Nth like he’s his property, Dion thinks it a necessary abomination and wants to kill it, Harathes hates it and wants to kill it, Cyrene finds it revolting and wants to kill it, and Lief… Lief doesn’t really care. He’s a thief though, and they have to be aloof.
However, it is the above thoughts that turn our five ragtag heroes into an interesting bunch of characters. Each one is struggling with something, and Nth acts as the catalyst to bring that out. Penthos is the most gifted mage in the world, but he doesn’t understand people or the general concept of right and wrong. He does like fire though! Dion is overcome with guilt over her quest for a variety of reasons, Nth being the big one. Cyrene is a bit of a misanthrope because of how she’s treated as a warrior woman, and Lief is…well, Lief. But I like him so that’s fine.
Harathes is the only character who doesn’t see any real development throughout the novel, but when you have five others that do, that’s okay. Five protagonists in a novel is a lot.
Spiderlight isn’t a big novel (also a departure from high fantasy), but it is packed with character from start to finish. I went from hating most of the aforementioned “heroes” to liking and respecting all of them (save Harathes) over a very short amount of time. They’re all defined by their flaws first and change by either overcoming or at least acknowledging them. That’s a lot of character work.
It’s also all handled seamlessly. You don’t notice it until a bit after it’s happened, and then you go, “oh wow!”
All of this might sound pretty meaty and dour, and in a way it is, but Spiderlight is also fine with levity and having fun. Penthos is hilarious in how he talks and presents himself, Leif is charming and enjoys himself a drink, and Harathes and Cyrene have some pretty amusing drama and banter. Whenever the novel feels like it’s getting too dark or serious, it moves into a scene—seamlessly at that—that kills some of the nasty. It never gets dark or edgy.
Dion is the only character who constantly stays serious, but her emotional turmoil is perhaps greater than Nths in a way. She’s also never included in any of the jokes because she’s the hero and the hero has to be heroic and on task. It’s tragic and makes her just as sympathetic as Nth.
I suppose there are some flaws to Spiderlight, though they aren’t anything major. I wasn’t a fan of Tchaikovsky’s writing style at first. It’s very simple and streamlined, and I’m used to more flowery prose and descriptions in my fantasy novels. He also likes his adverbials. None of this breaks the immersion though, and after a few chapters, I grew to appreciate the way he turned out a sentence. Brevity is the soul of wit and whatnot.
And despite busting a bunch of expectations and being a different kind of high-fantasy novel, Spiderlight does fall into some pretty standard tropes. Our party is built of a tank (Harathes), a healer (Dion), a mage (Penthos), a thief (Lief), and a ranger (Cyrene). I found this clever when I first read Dragons of Autumn’s Twilight in high school, but at this point, it’s just kind of boring. Thankfully the characters all drastically elevate themselves over their base roles, but still, I’d have liked something a bit different.
The ending too is…somewhat of a problem. It is unexpected, but it also reads like Tchaikovsky thought himself very, very clever. It’s its own joke, but now I’m the one being made fun of and not someone in the story. I also feel like the more I think about it, the more holes I find in it.
That being said, it is satisfying, and it does fit with the tone and parameters set within the novel. It isn’t a bad ending, yet it…well, it just rubbed me the wrong way.
On the whole, Spiderlight is a great little book in a genre I had written off quite some time ago. I had a blast with it, and the few little things I dislike are pretty minor and may not bother you at all. It’s brimming with character, and while the world or quest themselves aren’t all that interesting when compared to bigger, flashier fantasy novels, they aren’t really the goal here. This is a character book first, and a good cast of characters will always trump plot and world building.