A priest, a mage, a knight, a warrior, a thief, and a giant spider walk into a bar…
Tchaikovsky‘s Clarke Award-winning novel Children of Time (2015) already offered a fascinating glimpse into the arachnid mind – and went a long way to turn me from total arachnophobe into someone who still not really likes, but can at least appreciate spiders from afar. In Spiderlight (2016), the rare beast of a fantasy stand-alone novel, Tchaikovsky returns to eight-legged goodness. Not quite coincidentally, I read it in the same week Doctor Who brought us Spiders in the UK. I mean, what’s more fitting for Halloween than big, hairy, awfully fast spiders?
On first glance, Spiderlight is your typical D&D quest: the aforementioned assembly of rogues, warriors of the Light, follow a prophecy to bring down a Dark Lord. The prophecy leads them to Nth, the giant spider in question, who becomes their unwilling scout. Forcefully turned into a man, or at least into something vaguely resembling a man, he has to learn what it means to be human. The little band is guided by the Light of Armes, some bloke who went to become a god, dividing creation into creatures of the Light – humans – and creatures of the Dark – everyone else - with the Dark’s sole purpose being to be slain by the Light, because Light is better than Dark. Lovely fellow, this Armes, eh?
Tchaikovsky uses this set-up to thoroughly examine and subvert some of the more questionable fantasy tropes. On their journey into the Heart of Darkness our heroes reveal their motives and ever more of their personality - and don't appear all that heroic all of a sudden. Heart and soul of the narrative is Nth, whose abominable treatment poses a few uncomfortable questions about consent, about the means justifying an end, and puts a taint on all that Light.
Of course, subverting tropes has become a trope in itself by now, so the story’s not entirely new. But Tchaikovsky plays it well, tongue firmly in cheek, and with a palpable love for RPG. He manages to hold a fine balance between hilarious and gut-wrenchingly sad, light-hearted and heavy, Light and Dark… (sorry, couldn’t resist). The book’s a real page-turner, to boot. I finished it in just three days.
Recommended, even for people like me, who never quite got the fascination of D&D.