A band of heroes, a priestess determined to defeat the evil that threatens the land, and a prophecy that is the necessary fulfillment of conditions to defeat the Dark Lord all sounds like your bog-standard epic fantasy. The typical sort of epic fantasy that has been around since the 1980s and probably written in three or more volumes. Perhaps even one of those interminable series that just keeps going on and on. Almost certainly there would be your typical map, maybe a glossary, or a dramatis personae. In the hands of Adrian Tchaikovsky, however, Spiderlight is a lean short novel. It takes the epic fantasy formula template and in the midst of executing that formula, ruthlessly and entertainingly interrogates and examines it.
Spiderlight manages to key into some of the ideas and interests that the author’s fiction is known for, with a frisson of being very self-aware of the epic fantasy genre that it is set in. The first chapter, for instance, is called “Mirkwood Blues” and there are plenty of other Easter eggs and references throughout the book. While the story is a relatively straightforward one, the little details and allusions are definitely for readers steeped in, and with an appreciation, for the genre.
But it is the characters and their types that really go down the road of exploring and thinking about epic fantasy. The typical band of heroes that Dion, the Priestess, has assembled embody the archetypes you’d find in that epic fantasy. Dion is the devoted cleric, serving her God, leading the party into peril, assured that her faith will see her through. Cyrene, the red-haired archer. Harathes, the burly fighter type. Lief, the thiefly scout of the group. And finally, Penthos, the powerful magician, powerful enough to stand up to the Mother Spider, and make something unexpected of her gift and help create the sixth member of their party: Nth, the spider turned into the semblance of a man, to join the quest against the Dark Lord Darvezian. And a personage necessary to fulfill the jot and tittle of the prophecy needed to help take the ultimate evil down. Or so it seems.
And yet those archetypes are all challenged and interrogated throughout the course of the novel. Dion’s faith, both personally and that of the church as a whole, gets a real workout. The relationship between Cyrene and Harathes interrogates the nature of physical relationships in such parties, and explores issues of autonomy, masculinity and their roles within an adventuring party. Finally, Nth himself, of course, being something less than human, even in a humanoid body, learns more than a bit of humanity, and learns to engender people’s thoughts and feelings about their own humanity. And much more. Due to the nature of his creation, Nth’s actions and proscribed set of possible actions, and his ability to carry out those actions, interrogate the nature of free will, desire, and more.
Beyond all of this rich character development, the author uses and explores the epic fantasy landscape and other aspects of epic fantasy as well. The terrain of epic fantasy, from the spider infested forest, to the Holy City, to the borderlands cheek by jowl with evil, and then the dark world itself get explored and described from an outsider point of view. The locations are used, and seen both as wayposts in the typical quest, as well as fillips and sometimes straight up subversions of such locales and their meaning and role in the epic fantasy story. The Ghantishmen, his version of Orcs, created by the Dark Lord, provide a chance to look at the dark side of evil, and whether an entire race can or cannot be deemed evil just by their species. Nth, too, being of the spiders, provides a personal point of view on questions that are often just taken for granted in the bog-standard epic fantasy that the book interrogates. The author, who has used insects, especially spiders, in his previous works, has taken great delight in describing and using Nth, especially the scenes from his quite alien point of view. He may be described and seen, especially at first, as a monster, but the author knows the secret of using a monster to explore questions of what it means to be a person. Even more to the point, once the party finally comes face to face with the Dark Lord himself, the whole idea of who and what a Dark Lord is and what they are for in terms of a story is winningly explored.
In a way, the book feels like an embodiment of the late Diana Wynn Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fairyland. The basic quest and plotline are the chassis, but it is how Tchaikovsky looks at that basic quest, plotline and characters that makes this short novel come to vivid life. In a world of large epic fantasy series with mushy pacing and a lack of focus, Spiderlight is as sharp as a spider’s fang, as tight as its webbing, and as multifaceted as its gaze.