Thursday, April 7, 2022

Book Review: Spiderlight

book cover for SpiderlightThe 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 artifact 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…

The book blurb is misleading. It would have you believe that this is just a straight up high fantasy novel about a quest to defeat the typical evil overlord. While it certainly starts out that way, with the familiar collection of D&D characters fighting their way through a forest that is the home to the nest of a terrible spider queen, it's more than that. After that opening, we get to meet the characters and learn more about them. Rather than being the noble sort that one would get from Tolkien, we get a fractious lot prone to jealousy, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, sexism, vanity, and cruelty.

And these are the good guys!

Tchaikovsky, ever the arachnophile, serves up a spider character that is forced to join the group on its quest. I don't want to give too much away here, but the character, Enth, serves as a focal point for the group's ethical dilemmas. The way each character interacts with Enth reveals their true nature. Those with a conscience are forced to reconcile their actions and attitudes with the cause they claim to serve. Some succeed; others don't bother.

But it isn't all soul searching in the dark by candlelight. There are some lighter parts.
When Dion considered the world, her chief question was, Is this of Light or Dark? Penthos's main interest was usually, Is this flammable?
"Shut up, Penthos," Haranthes snapped at him, which would earn the man another week of impotence once they got back to civilization, not that he'd ever suspect who was behind his intermittent problem. Oh it's good to be a magus.
"Who would live at the top of a tower? Have you seen how many fucking stairs there are?"
Usually it's the thief, Lief, that delivers the satirical jabs, but he's also the one who's the most accepting of others who fail to live up to the lofty standards established by the self-righteous.
    Am I really about to rescue a monstrous servant of evil from the hands of the righteous?
    Enth whimpered. It was a human sound. Lief knew it: he himself had once or twice been beaten and broken just enough to make that sound.
    Fuck the righteous.
In the final confrontation with the Dark Lord, Tchaikovsky steers clear of the expected epic fantasy showdown. Sure there's a battle, but Darvezian's monologuing is more savage than his physical attacks, skewering the characters' belief system and self-worth and shredding them to bits.
"You go through life doing terrible, terrible things to each other, and to everything else, but you somehow still believe that you're right."
"Let me hear the sad little sound of your hearts breaking."
"My child, it doesn't matter if you do your best, if you don't get anywhere. It's just doubly pathetic that this, only this was your best."
Spiderlight sets aside the everyday tropes of the epic fantasy tale and opts instead to explore themes that are rarely discussed in the genre. The characters' ethical dilemmas easily translate to the real world: Misguided faith will make people do terrible things, and assuming that everyone of a certain demographic is inherently good/evil, despite actions to the contrary, is fallacy. I found Tchaikovsky's choice to be a refreshing take on the genre.

4.5 stars