Back in the 90s – I say, dating myself – there were multiple novel series set in different Dungeons and Dragons campaign worlds; mostly Dragonlance and The Forgotten Realms. These included some gems like Salvatore’s Drizzt series and the Dragonlance narrative itself. These two sagas were fantasy comfort food that one didn’t have to think too much about and that spawned a plethora of imitations – copycat novels that would not be published in today’s competitive climate. They were the fantasy equivalent of trashy romance; fun occasionally but ultimately hollow.
Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Spiderlight follows in the tradition of a classic D&D spin off, even if it never mentions any specific D&D phrases or systems, and it somehow manages to elevate this strange sub-genre of fantasy into heights I didn’t even know it was capable of. Like this year’s debut hit from Nicholas Eames, Kings of the Wyld, Spiderlight is an adventure story about tromping across the land on the way to defeat a great evil. It’s chock full of familiar tropes and more than a little comedy, and if I were to read a synopsis of this story, I would assume it was a carbon copy of The Lord of the Rings cross-bred with Garry Gygax’s formulaic ruleset. Much like Kings of the Wyld, Spiderlight is so much more.
The story follows Dion and her hand-picked group of adventurers on their quest to save the world – typical fantasy stuff. There is a paladin, a thief, a wizard, a ranger, and Dion herself as the holy priest and the one destined by prophecy to defeat the Dark Lord Darvezion. This is the group in the beginning, but things quickly change as Dion is forced to accept Enth into the group. Enth is a spider.
This is unusual, but even with a spider companion along for the ride – albeit one transformed magically to appear human – one might be tempted to compare Enth to a Gollum or a friendly Ettin if it weren’t for the fact that Tchaikovsky lets us into Enth’s mind. Viewpoints change often, and Lief the thief, Cyrene the ranger, and Penthos the wizard (who has the personality of Usidore from Hello from the Magic Tavern) are interesting viewpoints, as is Dion with her righteousness and doubt, but Enth’s sections are a fascinating introspection on what it means to be human, to have emotion, and to live in servitude to masters who misinterpret almost everything. He is seen as a monster, and while we the reader can see the falsity of this, that even the term monster is a human invention to demonize the “other”, his traveling companions are continually torn, in a world where Light and Dark are very clear-cut, about whether to trust Enth or simply kill him for the nightmare-made-flesh that he is. Their pathos is ultimately useless as Enth is required to fulfill their quest.
So that’s part of what makes Spiderlight so cool, and that might have been enough to set this book apart from the multitude of fantasy novels drowning the shelves. But Tchaikovsky is not content to merely subvert a hero trope.
The world of Spiderlight is as familiar as the characters. Light and Dark in Tchaikovsky’s vision are manifest things. One can detect the other even if shades of grey seem to exist in every nook and cranny of both humanity and those outside of it. The book is packed with action, which is always entertaining, but it’s the indecision and moral squabbling in between the sword-and-fire fights that makes for the more intriguing experience. These characters fight more with their own morality than they do with the varied dark fiends roaming the land. Tchaikovsky seems, in places, to be recriminating the gratuitous violence found in much of the genre while at the same time indulging in it. He finds clever ways as a writer to damn his cake and eat it too.
One could make the argument that the plot of Spiderlight, at least until the final few chapters, is not engaging enough to slog to its incredibly worthwhile ending – how could it be with such a trope-filled cast and by-the-numbers progression – but thanks to Tchaikovsky’s deft hand with moral quandary and an equally skilled ability to make almost every chapter laugh out loud funny, reading Spiderlight is never anything less than engaging. And though I won’t spoil the ending in this write-up, I have rarely read a final chapter that so thoroughly envelopes the preceding ninety percent of the story.
I am go glad I read this book!