Himself – a real fan of Tchaikovsky’s writing – had pre-ordered this one. I’m so very glad he did…
The Church of Armes 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…
This epic fantasy tale includes so many of the classic fantasy elements – a band of exceptional misfits, led by the chosen one fulfilling an ancient prophesy. There is said chosen one, a mage of great power, a couple of very capable guards – including the obligatory female warrior – and a thief for those sneaky chores that always need doing. Their quest to attempt to overthrow the Dark Lord is eventful and dangerous, including a violent encounter with a nest of huge spiders. And suddenly this classic fantasy lurches sideways and turns into something quite different.
Tchaikovsky once more takes a major genre, grasps it by the scruff of the neck and gives it thorough shaking, as in his excellent science fiction adventure, Children of Time – see my review here. However, this isn’t merely a parody. The story is too engrossing, the characters and adventure too gripping and genuinely engaging for this to be just used as a vehicle for ironic amusement. But there are some delicious moments that had me chuckling aloud – for instance when Penthos promises himself to magic the brave warrior, Harathes, another week of impotence for snapping at him.
He also thoroughly deconstructs the sexual politics underlying the inclusion of the mandatory female warrior by the inclusion of Cyrene – and her frustration at the way Harathes treats her. In a memorable scene, she rants at Dion that she is sick and tired of being treated as a sexual object by her male counterparts. Her bitter diatribe that she is always judged as a woman first and a warrior second is a scene that will stay with me for a long time. I’ve often thought the notion that fit young women can be given sufficient agency to overcome male dominance by dressing them in leggings and putting a weapon in their hands is far too simplistic a fix for the very complex dynamic that keeps women as second-class citizens around the world. Tchaikovsky rips away any fond illusions fantasy fans might have that bunging a handful of attractive sword-waving young women into the middle of an adventure successfully evens up the gender power imbalance.
But the book is transformed by the inclusion on this quest by the object the group brings away from the Spider Queen. We see the group reflected through an entirely alien, terrified viewpoint, which shifts the dynamic and provides a different, far less cosy viewpoint on our group of brave heroes. I am fond of spiders and thoroughly sympathised with the poor thing – but Himself admitted he also felt repulsed as he has an instinctive dislike of all things spidery. I’m guessing he won’t be the only one experiencing that uncomfortable mix of reactions to Nth’s plight. As a creature of the Dark, he is regarded by the righteous in the group as an abomination and it is interesting that the morally compromised Lief is the one to show Nth most empathy and compassion.
I’m conscious that discussing some of the underlying issues makes this book sound drearily earnest – and it’s nothing of the sort. It’s a rollicking adventure, full of incident and gory encounters to gladden the heart of any epic fantasy fan – and the climax with the Dark Lord will stay in my memory for a very long time.
If you enjoy this genre at any level, then I thoroughly recommend Spiderlight – it’s one of my outstanding novels of 2016 in a year marked by the general excellence of the books I’ve had the pleasure to read.